After the Braves claimed Jordan Schafer off waivers from Houston in November, he did something that gave Atlanta officials reason to think he understood the position he was in. He was now more suspect than prospect, 26 years old with a .221 average and .606 OPS in parts of three major league seasons.
Someone that last-place Houston had just let go and most teams passed on when they had a chance to claim him before the Braves did.
Inside of a five-year span, he’d been lauded, suspended, injured, injured again, traded, arrested, injured and waived. What he had not been, at least not for any sustained period, was a productive hitter. Nothing like what he’d been as a minor leaguer.
So what did he do after the Braves claimed him off the scrap heap? He called hitting coach Greg Walker, a man he didn’t know, who’d been hired by the Braves after Schafer was traded to Houston in July 2011.
He wanted to get to know Walker and assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher, let them know he needed help. Specifically, he needed to re-learn how to hit to the opposite field.
“I went to Atlanta this winter after he sent word that he wanted to meet me,” Walker said. “He flew into Atlanta for two days. He’d made a few changes to his swing. He said he didn’t feel like he could get a hit to left field anymore and that when he was young he could.”
Not so long ago, Schafer was The Man among Braves prospects. A third-round pick out of Winter Haven (Fla.) High, his stock soared when he hit .312 at Single-A in 2007 while leading the minors with 176 hits in 136 games, including 74 extra-base hits (10 triples, 15 homers). He had a .374 OBP and a .513 slugging percentage, scored 86 runs and stole 23 bases.
A year later, his reputation was tarnished by a 50-game suspension at Double-A Mississippi after being linked to performance-enhancing drugs, though he didn’t fail a drug test and insisted he never used.
Schafer was invited to big-league camp in 2009 and silenced skeptics by being the most impressive player on the field and winning the opening-day center-field job. He homered in his debut at Philadelphia and was 8-for-19 with two doubles and two homers in his first five games.
But he broke a bone near his wrist on a swing in the fourth game, struggled for two months while concealing the pain, was sent to Triple-A and eventually had surgery. He had setbacks in recovery and was slowed for two seasons.
To this day, Schafer has been trying to get it back and reach his full potential. That’s a long time trying to prove you’re not a bust, a lot of pressure, and Schafer concedes he didn’t handle it well.
A few months after being traded to the Astros, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
Around camp, people say he has matured some since he left Atlanta. Schafer says he slowed off the field while trying to do the right things on it. Like hit the ball up the middle and to left field.
“I feel like that was the biggest part of why I had success before, that I wasn’t afraid of having two strikes,” he said. “I felt like I could go to left field pretty much on demand, and I felt like I lost that. Now is the first time I feel like I have that back.”
Other than stolen bases and defense, there is little to recommend of his work in the majors since that first week as a rookie. But he can still fly, still catch and still throw. He’s a superb bunter, hits line drives, occasionally goes deep.
It’s a matter of putting together the whole package. He has shown flashes this spring, starting out 11-for-38 (.289) but going 2-for-15 since. He had three walks and a stolen base Friday against Philadelphia, giving him a team-high four steals and tying for the team lead with seven walks.
“We talked to him a lot about, you’ve got to be a line-drive hitter,” Walker said. “You’ve got to hit line drives in this league. You’re not going to hit enough home runs to be a home-run hitter, and in the big leagues you can’t out-run ground balls. They’ve got people who can catch and throw it over. You’re just going to be out by a step closer than other guys.”
Schafer played well while fifth-outfielder competitor Jose Constanza was stuck in the Dominican Republic for the first month of spring training because of visa issues. Constanza, back now, hit .281 with a .332 OBP in 185 at-bats during 2011-12.
Schafer has more upside and is out of minor-league options. Constanza is not. That means Schafer can’t be sent to the minors without going through waivers, where a team like the outfield-starved Mets likely would claim him.
“He’s worked hard,” general manager Frank Wren said. “He’s done everything we could ask. We know he can do all the athletic things. He can defend, he can run, he can throw. Now it’s the skill things. Being able to make consistent contact and hit the ball where it’s pitched. And he’s made great strides in those areas. Schafe has ability.”
Said Walker: “I’ve had guys come to me late in their career who have not had a lot of success, but you look at them and you say they should. And you try to find a recipe that works for them.”