KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Given the recent episodes of exploding craniums in center field, the Braves may want to seek special dispensation from league officials to allow a therapist and maybe a couch in center this season.
Nate McLouth is one candidate to start. He started last season hitting .168, was sent down to Gwinnett and now admits, with the advantage of hindsight and bed rest: “It was like a runaway train. The harder I worked, the more I worried about it. It was like paralysis by analysis.”
The other candidate is Jordan Schafer, a former solid gold prospect whose career bullet points include a suspension, a wrist injury, overconfidence, underconfidence and a double-demotion — from the majors to Triple-A to Double-A — six seasons following his draft class. Schafer said in understatement: “When you’re used to doing things one way and then suddenly you feel handicapped, it’s taxing mentally.”
There are people in rubber rooms with plastic forks who don’t feel so taxed.
Remember, this is center field we’re talking about. For 10 seasons, Andruw Jones started all but 56 games in center for the Braves (and those 56 were divided among eight others). In the last three seasons, the Braves have had 11 different starters in center, with seven starting at least 27 games: McLouth, Schafer, Mark Kotsay, Gregor Blanco, Melky Cabrera, Rick Ankiel and Josh Anderson.
This has not been the position of stability.
Schafer was expected to be the next great thing. McLouth was expected to be the bridge to the next great thing.
We’re still waiting on both developments.
“I’m sure every player in this game would like to forget one year in his career,” Schafer said. “Last year was that year for both of us.”
He gets points for summation.
The Braves don’t need either McLouth or Schafer to be an All-Star. They just can’t afford another year of meltdowns or shuttle service to Gwinnett.
If you’re wondering which to bet on, it’s McLouth. We’re way past the point of assuming anything about Schafer. McLouth at least had a resume in Pittsburgh. His 2008 season included 46 doubles, 26 homers, 94 RBI.
I know. Hard to imagine.
McLouth showed up at spring training with long blonde hair that had a particular shine to it, so much so that it appeared to have highlights.
“Only two people in the world know that, and it will remain that way, I hope,” he said.
Dude can have a pink mohawk with a green stripe if he can get on base. It would mean manager Fredi Gonzalez can bat him leadoff or second (behind Martin Prado). Follow that with Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward and suddenly the Braves have as good a lineup as anybody. If he fizzles again, the top-of-the-order scramble is on again.
So far in spring, the edge goes to McLouth: He is 3-for-5 and has reached base eight times (three hits, three walks, twice hit by a pitch) in 10 plate appearances. Schafer had an RBI single Tuesday but is only 2-for-10.
McLouth called last season, “The hardest thing I’ve been through in my life.” When the season ended, he sat in front of his locker and came to a realization.
“I thought, I can go one of two ways here: I can let this ruin me and drain all of my confidence or I can regroup and come back to camp confident and be the type of player that I have been in the past.”
McLouth acknowledges he hasn’t inspired a lot of confidence among fans and says criticism is justified.
“It’s made my skin thicker,” he said. “I have a ton to prove this year.”
They both do. Center field has been a black hole.
By Jeff Schultz
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