With Upton out, Braves can get good look at CF options

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DARK STAR, Fla. – If you were thinking that things couldn’t possibly go as bad for Melvin Upton Jr. than when he was known as B.J. Upton, well, it only took a few days for that theory to be disproved. Say what you will about how bad B.J.’s first two seasons with the Braves were – and they were terrible – but he never had an injury that kept him out two months.

And this one could keep him out even longer, if you think about the tentative rehab plan they’ve laid out. If I had to guess, I say we don’t see Upton before mid-May, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s closer to June. More on that in a moment.

Former Nationals prospect Eury Perez might be the best option to replace injured Melvin Upton in center field. (AP photo)

Former Nationals prospect Eury Perez might be the best option to replace injured Melvin Upton in center field. (AP photo)

Many Braves fans have commented on social media and elsewhere that it’s the best development of the spring in regards to Upton. That’s cruel and kicking a man when he’s down, which ain’t cool. So I won’t join in that exercise. But I will say, it could benefit the Braves in that they’ll now get to take a longer look at the options they have to replace Upton in the event he struggles this year (when he returns) like he struggled the past two years.

Because we all know the leash wasn’t going to be as long this year as it was in the past two years. Upton wasn’t going to still be in the lineup in July if batting, say, .200 and striking out every third time he batted.

So anyway, now we’ll get to see Eury Perez a lot this spring and find out if the speedy center fielder was a great pickup, after posting a high average and OBP in Triple-A with the Nats but slipping through the cracks with them and Yankees because they had studs or at least guys with big contracts in the outfield and Perez was the victim of a numbers game (even if he might have been better than an outfielder or two that was kept by those teams; if that sounds like Jordan Schafer with the Braves, well, it probably should).

Perez hit .310 with a .371 OBP and 26 stolen bases in 67 games last season with Nationals minor league affiliates. But he has just 23 total plate appearances in the majors in callups with the Nats in 2012-2013 and Yankees in 2014. So it remains to be seen what he can do against big-league pitching. We’ll get a little better idea this spring when he plays a lot and faces some good pitchers (and plenty of garbage pitchers, too, which is why spring-training numbers shouldn’t always be taken at face value).

We’ll get to see if Eric Young Jr. can play good center-field defense. We know he’s a solid enough left fielder, and came up as a second baseman, but he’s not played a whole lot in center in the majors, and Braves officials want to see him out there to decide if he’s good enough to play it on a regular basis. Fredi Gonzalez and some Braves officials are intrigued by the idea of Young batting leadoff, perhaps giving the Braves the first prototypical leadoff hitter they’ve had since Michael Bourn.

Problem with that is, almost nothing about his offensive stats suggests Michael Bourn, other than EY doesn’t walk at a high rate. (Bourn didn’t either, but at least he used to hit for a high average and a lot of triples, etc.) EY Jr has a .252 career average and .320 OBP in the majors, and his .229/.299 last season is why he had to settle for a minor league contract and non-roster invite. So let’s not get the expectation machine cranked up too much.

Melvin Upton will have to wait at least a couple of months before he's ready to resume his efforts to put the past two miserable seasons behind him. He's got a foot injury and was in a cast Saturday. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

Melvin Upton will have to wait at least a couple of months before he’s ready to resume his efforts to put the past two miserable seasons behind him. He’s got a foot injury and was in a cast Saturday. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

Even if he can play center, is he a guy you want leading off on a daily basis? Not unless he hits a whole helluva lot better than last year. (I like him better as a part-time option in left field and pinch-runner, if he’s on the roster.)

Todd Cunningham? Good dude. Solid outfielder at all three positions. But not going to give you much of anything offensively. Spent the past two seasons in Triple-A and had totals of 10 homers and 39 steals in more than 1,000 PAs in that span, while OPS’ing at .675 2013 and .754 in 2014. Remember, that was in Triple-A. And he’s almost 26.

The other possibility is Zoilo Almonte, who would be a lot better option if we were talking about an injury in left or right field. (If Nick Markakis isn’t ready to go at the start of the season, maybe Almonte will be the best option in right field.) But center? He’s only played it on a very limited basis, and the former Yankee farmhand isn’t built like a center fielder and doesn’t run like one. He’s got thick, muscular legs. Some pop in his bat. Weighs about 220 pounds. Had 18 homers in 454 PAs for the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate last season and was one of the best hitters in the Dominican Winter League this offseason.

But he’s a corner outfielder, not a center fielder.

If Mallex Smith was 22 and coming off a big year in Double-A, I’d say the Braves might be best going with him. But he’s 21 and coming off a big year in A-ball, having batted .310 with a .403 OBP and 88 stolen bases in 120 games. A year from now, maybe he could be the guy to replace Upton if the Braves have traded or just given up and released him by that point. But not now. Nope.

The Braves plan to have him start the season in Double-A. Smith doesn’t have a strong arm and scouts say he needs to keep working on getting better reads on balls to better utilize is speed. Also, he needs to sharpen up his basestealing skills — he was also caught 26 times, which translates to a 77-percent success rate that’s not great for a guy who runs that much.

We’ll see how this plays out, and whether the Braves, despite stated intentions to go with what they have, decide instead to make a move and bring in another center fielder. But for now, if I had to guess, I’d say they go with Perez, who impressed new Braves third-base coach Bo Porter when Porter held that same position with the Nats in 2011-2012 and got to see him plenty in spring training and in a couple of callups.

Perez, 24, only had 23 plate appearances in three callups with the Nats and Yankees, who claimed him off waivers from the Nats in late September. The Braves signed him to a major league contract about five weeks ago, and that move was one of those under-the-radar moves that we said at the time might pay big dividends down the road. Well, “down the road” might be here a lot sooner than anticipated.

Perez stole 268 bases and hit .305 with a .360 on-base percentage in 698 games over eight minor league seasons with the Nationals, including seasons with 64, 45 and 51 steals from 2010 through 2012. He had more triples (25) than homers (20) in the minors.

He’s a right-handed hitter who had a .310 average with a .371 OBP in the minors last season, with 18 extra-base hits (two homers) and 26 steals in 30 attempts over 67 games, including 57 in Triple-A.

  On the day the Braves signed him, I asked John Hart about Perez. “We like this player — he has speed and can hit,” said the Braves president of baseball operations.

If he turns out to be as good as the Braves think Perez can be, then the Upton injury might actually have come at an opportune time, allowing them to take a good look at Perez this spring and perhaps giving him – or someone else – a solid month or more in center field during the regular season before Upton would be expected to return. And if Perez or another CF is impressing, don’t look for Upton to be coming back before a significant rehab stint in the minors.

The Upton foot injury diagnosed this week is likely to keep him out longer than what he or most of you might be thinking. Because if the tentative rehab schedule they gave us is correct, and he spends two weeks in a cast followed by four to six weeks in a walking boot, well, that’s a minimum six weeks there before he’d be back running and doing any strenuous baseball activities.

And it’s not as if he’s going to go from walking boot to the lineup in under two weeks.

Once he gets the boot off he’s going to have to progress from jogging to running, sprinting, cutting, etc. This injury, inflammation to a bone behind the ball of the foot, doesn’t permit him to push off. Can’t do much in baseball until that’s healed, especially when speed is your best asset. And they’re going to want to make sure it’s completely healed so it doesn’t linger, since without speed Upton isn’t of much use even if his swing’s better (and no, we can’t truthfully say we’ve seen his swing enough this spring in the batting cage to know if his swing is better).

So to recap, I’d guess we’re probably looking at more than two months before he’s ready to play. And to be honest, I’m thinking it might be three months or more before he’s on the 25-man roster.

As I said, the positive in this is that it gives the Braves time to observe their other in-house options and figure out if they have the guy to replace Upton should he be dropped at some point in the next year. The negatives? Well, for one thing, this could halt any offseason progress Upton made, mentally and/or physically, in his effort to snap out of his two-year doldrums. He’s got a lot of time to sit around and think, which might not be good for a guy who’s hit under the Mendoza Line for the first two years of the largest free-agent contract the Braves ever gave a player, and knows the Braves would’ve traded him this winter if any team would’ve been interested in paying part of the more than $46 million he’s still owed.

The other negative? Well, not to be cold, but if the Braves were inclined to perhaps dump Upton later this season should he still be hitting around .200 with a ton of strikeouts and playing mediocre defense – the way he’s played the past two years, in other words – then what does this period of inactivity at the start of the season do to that possibility? Do they wait two or three months longer than they might have to release him, if they were/are so inclined should he struggle mightily once again?

If none of the other options steps to the fore, would they be less inclined to dump him without bringing in another established center fielder? Or would it even matter? I mean, if he struggles again, for a third consecutive year, it really would be hard to make any case for doing anything other than eating the rest of his contract.  

But if he doesn’t play until May or June, then they would probably have to wait until at least after the All-Star break to give him a chance to show what he can do. And what if one of the other guys who’s filling in for him plays well in the interim? Then presumably they wouldn’t just bench that guy in order to prelace him with a .198-for-the-past-two-years hitter.

I mean, it shouldn’t take the next Lou Gehrig to make Upton the next Wally Pipp, because Upton is no Pipp. Not since the Braves got him. No Pipp. Just a dud.

And now he’s hurt. And until he’s ready to play, there will be no way to tell if Melvin is any better than B.J. was.

Stay tuned.

• OK, let’s close this with this cut from a little band that formed in Florida but thrived out of Macon, Ga., the mighty Allman Brothers Band with a cut off their Eat a Peach album.

“STAND BACK” by the Allman Brothers

Allman Brothers Band

Allman Brothers Band

I recall once upon a time,
Livin was so easy and I felt so fine.
But, my, my, my right before my very eyes,
Satan came with fire to burn me,
Wouldn’t listen when they warned me.
A dagger in my back while she’s calling me honey,
Wouldn’t stand back, for neither love nor money.

Thirty minutes after my ship set sail,
She put up a sign and my house began to wail.
But, why, why, why I couldn’t see it in my little girl’s eyes?
She had such a way to fool me, Lord she had a way to fool me.
And I would ask the woman, “Can you find it in yourself to please stand back?
You ain’t gonna rule me.”

Just when all began to fade,
I reached out, threw the Ace of Spades.
I put her on a train to the Everglades.

Now that it’s all over and gone,
Somehow I just don’t feel so alone.
But, lie, lie, lie it seemed like such a waste of time.
She did not ever seem to know me,
But, now it’s much too late to show me.
But, if I ever see that woman walkin down the street I’ll just stand back,
And try to move away slowly.
Oh, yeah.


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