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40-players-in-40-days-the-center-fielders | December | 2009 Articles

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40 Players in 40 Days: The Center Fielders

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We looked at how the Braves went with the cheap solution in left field last year, and they arguably did the same thing in center, letting Jordan Schafer and his $400,000 salary take over. Wren struck early to get Nate McLouth in hopes of remedying that situation. McLouth and Schafer are both still around, with Gregor Blanco filling out the Braves' slate of center fielders.

Mark Bowman said at the beginning of the year that a demotion to the minors might be mentally damaging for Blanco, and after Blanco's horrendous 2009, it sounds like Bowman might have been right. He didn't make the team out of spring training, and never found his rhythm at Gwinnett. His Triple-A line translates to a pathetic .221/.320/.281 in the majors. His .366 OBP and plus defense in 2008 gave me hope that he might have a future as a fourth outfielder, but his future has become significantly less clear after his lost 2009. And he's going to be 26 years old, so he's nearing the "now or never" point. However, he's giving us some reason to hope, as he's hit .333/.481/.402 in 102 at-bats in the Venezuelan Winter League. The Braves will be looking for a fifth outfielder next spring, and if Blanco can rediscover his pesky on-base skills, his versatile glove would be very handy to have around.

McLouth was acquired in May to put the Jordan Schafer Era on hold, but he wasn't quite the hitter the Braves were looking for. McLouth's batting average and OBP remained unchanged with his new team, but he lost 50 points of slugging without apparent explanation. It certainly didn't help that he never got into a rhythm at Turner Field, hitting just .208/.319/.346 in the Braves' home park, after slugging .521 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. He'd been pretty consistent from 2007 through the trade in 2009, so I think it's pretty reasonable to expect McLouth to at least get back over the .800 mark in the OPS category. But 2009 wasn't a completely backward campaign for Nate: voters took a lot of flak for giving him a Gold Glove in 2008 despite a horrific UZR, but he improved greatly in 2009 in the defense department, saving about five runs per 150 games. Again, keep an eye on the sample size, and remember that he's still pretty heavily negative for his career in spite of the good season. What isn't in doubt is that he can be a true defensive asset playing a corner outfield spot, and an acquisition like Mike Cameron could pair with Nate to cover tons of ground while holding their own on the offensive side. McLouth is signed pretty cheaply for 2011 before his 2012 option gets slightly expensive ($10.65 million), so for now he's the one starting outfielder the Braves can put down for sure in 2010.

Schafer was one of the more disappointing players for the Braves in 2009, but there was some writing on the wall that he might struggle at the major-league level. He had a great spring training, but he still struck out a ton, and concerns about his performance against left-handed pitching weren't assuaged. He still looked like a guy that needed more development time, but the Braves rushed him up to the bigs nonetheless. Throw in a wrist injury suffered right out of the gate (that Schafer played through for several weeks), and Jordan had no chance against top-level pitching. He even struggled at times on defense, though he still projects as a top-notch defensive center fielder. Schafer is still young and extremely talented, but there is a ton of risk there. He still needs to get healthy, and make up the significant development time that he's missed over the last two seasons. Mark Bowman says he may be trade bait, and it certainly wouldn't surprise me to see Schafer moved this winter. He's not a guy you get rid of just to have him gone, but now might be the time to pass all that risk off to somebody else, and get something more certain in return.

Thoughts?

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