With opening day now a week away, the Braves are almost ready to go. But center field is still the biggest decision they have to make before playing the World Champion Phillies in Philadelphia next Sunday night.
The rookie Jordan Schafer seems to be the leader at this point. He's had a great spring and simply outplayed Josh Anderson and Gregor Blanco, who spent most of March with the Venezuelan team at the WBC.
Schafer would have already been the starter if not for his 50-game suspension last April for Human Growth Hormone. The Braves brought Mark Kotsay in to bridge the gap until Schafer was ready, but the suspension changed the timetable just a bit. Instead, Schafer struggled when he first returned and finally got back on track at the end of the season in Double-A Mississippi.
Make no mistake about it: Schafer is the future. He's got above average, close-to Andruw Jones defensive skills in center field. He's got speed that could produce 30 steals or more a season. And he's got the bat that could be productive at the top of the order.
The Braves have to ask themselves if Schafer is ready, but it won't only be about how he played in March and the numbers he put up.
"The primary consideration anytime you have a young player making the jump is are they ready emotionally and are they ready physically, "said general manager Frank Wren. "The emotional part is a much bigger test than the physical. I don't think there's any doubt physically Jordan is ready to play at the major league level.
"Is he ready emotionally? Does he have the skills that will allow him to make the adjustments, cause you have to make the adjustments at the major league level? Those are the big questions we'll ask up until that final decision."
But the Braves know Schafer is close. When he arrived at spring training, Schafer wasn't the cocky kid the coaches saw this time last spring. Schafer was confident and determined, ready to prove he was ready to be the new starter in center field.
A shoulder problem kept him out of the lineup for about a week, but when he returned Schafer just kept on hitting. With Anderson struggling and Blanco in the WBC, it made Schafer the focal point of the competition.
One dilemma the Braves have is Anderson, who is out of options. They do not want to lose him. So if they can't trade Anderson in the next few days, we could see the team go with Anderson and give Schafer some time in Triple-A.
The Braves believe Anderson and Blanco are good players, probably more like fourth outfielders. They do not think, however, that they would be settling for less talent if Schafer starts the season in Triple-A Gwinnett.
"The good thing for us is we've got three guys that we feel very comfortable with playing center field in the big leagues for the Atlanta Braves," Wren said. "We do like our other options."
Schafer, however, deserves the job. He's shown all a rookie needs to show in spring training that he's ready. The other two are okay, but the Braves need more than okay. They've got to have Jeff Francoeur bounce back in right field, and they've got to hope veteran Garrett Anderson will be ready to go.
Sure, Schafer will struggle at times. All rookies usually do. But he's passed the test. Jordan Schafer needs to be the choice and be at the top of the Braves lineup Sunday night.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In an article originally printed in the Macon Telegraph, The Braves Show's Bill Shanks talks about…