On April 5 of this season, a coveted prospect named Jason Heyward homered in his first major league at-bat for the Braves. You now can find him in the heart of their batting order, with nearly as many runs batted in as Chipper Jones and Brian McCann combined.
On April 5 of last season, a coveted prospect named Jordan Schafer homered in his first major league at-bat for the Braves. You could find him this weekend in Lawrenceville, hitting .217 for Triple-A Gwinnett.
There is no permanence in sports. But right now, fair or unfair, we can assume there are fewer people projecting Heyward will fall off a cliff than there are those believing Schafer will fulfill expectations.
Schafer knows this. He’s OK with it. Actually, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to slide off the Next Great Thing radar. Makes it sweeter if you can prove them wrong.
“Oh, 100 percent,” he said when asked if he believes some have written him off. “I’m sure there are a lot of those people out there. I had to listen to it all last year. But I know what my ability is. I know where I belong and how I can compete. I haven’t lost faith in myself, but I can understand how other people might have. It’s just going to take time for me to prove it to them.”
It’s way too early for “bust” talk with Jordan Schafer. He has youth (23) and talent. He remains the Braves’ best hope for a starting center fielder and long-term leadoff hitter (Martin Prado, notwithstanding). That’s just not going to happen right away. Schafer went from the organization’s No. 1 prospect in 2008 to a suspension for HGH (which he has long disputed) to struggling in his rookie season (following that early home run), getting dropped to the minors and then having wrist surgery last September.
To what extent the wrist injury skewed Schafer’s statistics (.204 with 63 strikeouts in 167 at-bats) can’t be certain until he returns to the majors. But perceptions have taken a hit, as has his psyche. Waiting for timing, strength and production to return can wear on any athlete, especially a young one. In his first 26 games with three teams in the minors following rehab, he was hitting .241. He went 8 for 42 (.170) in the first 11 games but 7 for 22 (.318) in the next five.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, and he wants it to happen overnight,” G-Braves manager Dave Brundage said. “It’s way more mental than it is physical. He didn’t have this thought process before, with all the down time to think about all this stuff. He just let his tools play. Then he got to the big leagues and it was humbling. But he’ll be better for this down the road.”
Schafer has needed some counseling along the way. In addition to Brundage, he has had long conversations with his father and a sports psychologist (whom he had seen in 2007 before stopping). It has been difficult, though he managed a joke when asked how he liked playing in Gwinnett.
“The stadium over there [Turner Field] is a little closer to my house,” he said.
He talked about feeling frustrated. He talked about needing patience. He talked about growth. He admits he could’ve handled things better, and let things bother him too much in the past.
“I tried to listen to a hundred different people at one time,” he said.
“The past two or three years I’ve probably been through as many highs and lows as anybody can go through. It’s made me stronger mentally. I don’t think anything can faze me now because I’ve been through so much. I was telling somebody earlier that I wouldn’t let my kid play this game. I’d have him play golf.”
He still sees himself as the Braves’ leadoff hitter one day, though he won’t put a timetable on it. He has even solicited Otis Nixon for advice.
When Schafer returns to the stadium down I-85, he said, “I won’t be shocked and awed this time. It’ll be more of a business type approach. Last time I let those distractions get to me. Mentally, I’ll be better prepared.”
It’s not just the wrist that needed healing.