Ever since the departure of Andruw Jones in 2006, the Braves have struggled to find a center fielder who's capable of both hitting and fielding with any success (the 2011 Braves Annual has a great piece on this and it's worth checking out.). Anyways, from Gregor Blanco to Mark Kotsay to Jordan Schafer to Nate McLouth, the Braves haven't been able to find a suitable center fielder for one reason or another.
Just about everyone figured Nate McLouth and his -1.3 WAR from 2010 would be the Braves' Opening Day center fielder in 2011, and it was more of a formality instead of performance-based. McLouth will make $7 million dollars this year (which is about 8.2% of the payroll) and it appeared as if Atlanta was content on just handing him the job. Whether it's the right move or not was up for debate, but most had just figured the team would make an adjustment as the season went on if it was needed.
As the whole team was reporting to camp on Saturday, David O'Brien of the AJC had this to say about former top-prospect Jordan Schafer:
CF Jordan Schafer hit a homer off LH Venters couple days ago, and peppered wall with liners off prospects Teheran & Delgado Sat.
This is great to hear, and if it continues into the games (which start Saturday!), the Braves could have a very interesting Spring Training in store for them. Schafer has all of the talent in the world, is in phenomenal shape, and he's eager to get back to the Major League level with his wrist fully healed. He's already a better defender than McLouth is, and if his wrist really is healed, he's probably the more talented of a hitter as well.
As we stand now, Nate McLouth is still the Braves' starting center fielder and will be given every opportunity in Spring Training to save his job. As a matter of fact, the best case scenario for Atlanta is McLouth regains his 2008 and 2009 form at the plate and plays above-average defense in the field. With him making quite a bit of money, it would really hurt to have him warm the bench for the next 162 games. McLouth's re-emergence also allows Atlanta to let Schafer get some much needed at-bats in Triple-A to hopefully get him ready for 2012 and beyond when McLouth is out of town.
But what if Nate McLouth has another horrible Spring Training (don't forget, he had like five hits in all of Spring Training last year) and Jordan Schafer emerges just as he did in 2009? What do the Braves do? This is a team that's capable of winning a world series, and it seems foolish to let the lesser of a player play just because he's making a bunch of money. Should the Braves bite the bullet, risk offending McLouth, and let Schafer start from Opening Day? Should they give McLouth a two or three month tryout to see if he can re-gain his form and then make a decision? Do they stick with McLouth the whole season regardless of how he's performing?
These decisions await the Braves and new manager Fredi Gonzalez, and it should be very interesting to see how things play out.