Spring Training Preview: Center Field

The Braves need veteran Nate McLouth to be a productive leadoff man this season.

A year ago there was a lot of drama in spring training. Rookie Jordan Schafer was battling it out with Gregor Blanco and Josh Anderson for playing time.

Schafer easily won the job with a solid month of March. Blanco was demoted and Anderson was traded.

After a pretty good first two games, in which he hit two home runs in his first three games, Schafer hurt his wrist in the first weekend of the season.

Schafer was never the same as he hid the severity of his wrist injury. He finished April hitting a respectable .273, but after hitting .158 in May the Braves sent him down to Gwinnett on June 1.

Schafer would then reveal how hurt his wrist was, and he barely played the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, the Braves had a chance to bring in another center fielder, when they acquired Nate McLouth from Pittsburgh on June 3.

The Braves immediately solved two problems, by placing McLouth in center field and in the leadoff spot. McLouth was better than Kelly Johnson in the top spot, who was miscast anyway as a leadoff man.

Atlanta got better offensively in late June, and McLouth was a factor. While his batting average in the second half was only .237, McLouth had a .356 OBP to set up the Atlanta order.

After the season, McLouth had corrective eye surgery. He had tried on a pair of Brian McCann's glasses and could actually see. So now that McLouth's eyesight has been improved, the Braves hope he'll be even more productive in 2010.

McLouth is what he is - not the typical leadoff man - but a productive 20 home run/20 stolen base player.

The Braves acquired Melky Cabrera from the Yankees in December, and he's scheduled to split time with Matt Diaz. But Cabrera could be a better defensive player than McLouth, and it will be interesting to see if the Braves consider moving McLouth over to left.

If McLouth gets hurt, Cabrera could move to center. And don't forget about Schafer. While he'll be limited in March as he returns from his wrist surgery, the Braves hope Schafer can be back at full strength by midseason. So if an opportunity presents itself, Schafer could get back into the equation pretty quickly.

Blanco is still on the 40-man roster, so he is an option if they have to make a roster move. And infield reserve Omar Infante could play center in a pinch.

The Braves will have McLouth from day one this year, and that will hopefully allow him to be more consistent and be an even better leadoff man for the 2010 team.

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 column for The Macon Telegraph. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.

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