Schafer is winning Braves CF job

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Jordan Schafer may not wear his heart on his sleeve, but you don't have to look far for a peek into his soul. On his left biceps, the rookie outfielder for the Atlanta Braves has had tattooed some T-shirt-tested wisdom from Confucius.

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

And on his right biceps, a tattooed, pulpit-tested Bible verse from the book of Romans, 8:28, if you're scoring at home.

We know that God causes all things to work together for those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.

Read between the lines and you find a 22-year-old prospect determined to reclaim his place on the fast track to the big leagues after a 50-game suspension related to human growth hormone (HGH) last spring took a chunk out of his 2008 season and chiseled a hole in his reputation.

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Atlanta's Jordan Schafer.

(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

He looks like he's going to get there, perhaps quicker than anyone expected. Braves sources said that if the decision was made today, the left-handed hitting Schafer would be the everyday center fielder ahead of two other young players, Josh Anderson and Gregor Blanco. Mark down Schafer for a big league arrival at the same time as his one-time minor-league roommate, Elvis Andrus, who is set to open the season at shortstop for the Texas Rangers less than two years after being acquired from the Braves.

"He's one of my best friends,'' Schafer said. "We still talk several times a week. He's an awesome guy. Maybe someday he'll come back and we'll play together.''

Scouts say Schafer is a well-rounded player who runs well, has emerging power and a sensational glove. Just when Braves fans thought they'd never see the likes of Andruw Jones again (the pre-Dodger-blimp Jones), manager Bobby Cox said Schafer is as good defensively as the 10-time Gold Glove-winning center fielder.

"He's as good a defender in center field as you'd ever, ever want to have,'' Cox said. "He's that good. Andruw? This kid's right there. And he throws well. He's accurate. His arm is slightly above average and accurate. He runs very well and gets great jumps.''

Although Schafer led the minor leagues in hits two years ago and is batting .396 this spring, he is likely to struggle offensively early on, striking out a lot, according to one big-league talent evaluator. But the Braves can live with that in the short term.

"The kid's tooled out of his mind,'' Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "He's got every tool you could possibly ask for. He's a great kid, and he wants to be a great player. That's all you can ask for.''

The circumstances of Schafer's suspension remain hazy. He was punished last April after a probe by MLB's recently formed Department of Investigations, which reportedly suspected him of using HGH through anecdotal evidence. No viable urine test exists for HGH and baseball players are not subjected to blood tests for drug use.

"It did knock me off track,'' Schafer said, "and took me a while to get past it. But I think I showed everybody they don't have anything to worry about. I came back and finished strong in Mississippi last season, I went to Mexico and played winter ball, and I've done well here.

"Anybody that had doubts, I think I've put them to rest.''

Schafer refused to address the HGH issue last season, but when he arrived in camp in February, he was adamant that he had never used HGH or steroids, a position he reiterated Saturday. Why didn't he contest the suspension at the time? He said in an interview that his initial inclination was to fight it, but decided he'd get a more sympathetic hearing if he accepted responsibility. One source familiar with the case said that Schafer may have been unwilling to implicate another person close to him.

When he finally did address it, Schafer said he was guilty of associating with the wrong people.

"I knew what was going on and I hung around those people and I didn't say anything," he said.

He came back this spring freshly tattooed – the new artwork joining one of a cross with the inscription "Hard-working man's respect'' – and a sense that the message on his muscles had never rung more true for him.

"Stuff happens in life for a reason," he said. "I don't know what that reason was, why it went down like that, but I really think it helped me mature a lot faster than I would have.

"I think when I came here last year I may have tweaked people the wrong way. This year, I understand my place. So in a way, it was a good thing. But now it's in the past, and I don't want to talk about it.''

Schafer grew up in nearby Winter Haven, where the Indians used to train. When he was a kid, his dad would take him and a couple of friends out of school, and they'd stand beyond the outfield fence, collecting baseballs they would later use for their own backyard batting practice.

Schafer's at-home BP has grown dramatically more sophisticated. He used $90,000 of his bonus money, he said, to buy a computer-simulated, video batting practice machine, ProBatter, that is used by several big-league clubs, including the Red Sox.

Punch in a pitcher's name and the computer will summon his pitches, which can be called for by type or by programming the machine to throw randomly.

"That thing is unbelievable,'' Schafer said. "I picked [Johan] Santana a bunch, [Mariano] Rivera and his cutter, Barry Zito, [Roger] Clemens.''

The number of bats he's broken facing the best?

"Oh, you have no idea,'' he said. "[Teammate Matt] Diaz comes and hits with me sometimes, and we have a trash can full of broken bats. It really helps you a lot, but you have to put it back to Little League speed just before camp as a confidence booster, because you're breaking all your bats.

"But I find it gives me a great advantage in spring training because even before I got here I was facing 96, 97 miles an hour and already facing sliders.''

That's the kind of edge no one has to apologize for.