KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Forgive Nate McLouth for having a convenient case of amnesia.
He just wants to forget last season.
“When I left Atlanta the day after the season ended,” McLouth said, “I was done with that. I spent the offseason just recharging my batteries and rebuilding my confidence.”
As the Braves prepare for their first game of spring training Saturday, the 25-man roster is largely set except for a pitcher here, a utility infielder there.
Still, there are plenty of questions that must be addressed: Will Chipper Jones’ surgically repaired knee hold up? Can 21-year-old Freddie Freeman have the same impact as last year’s rookie sensation, Jason Heyward? How will Martin Prado fare making the shift to left field?
And, perhaps the most perplexing issue of all in centerfield: Will McLouth regain the form the Braves thought they were getting after acquiring him from Pittsburgh in 2009, a guy who can run, field and hit for power? Or will he remain the mess of a player he was in 2010, struggling so much he was demoted to Triple-A?
“I’m just excited that 2011 is starting,” he said.
The Braves will give McLouth the first crack at regaining his job. In fact, new manager Fredi Gonzalez hopes to bat him second in the order, between Prado and Jones.
That would be perfect if this is McLouth, Version 2008, the year he broke out for the lowly Pirates with 26 homers, 94 RBIs and 23 stolen bases. Early the next season, he was dealt to the Braves, who figured the had locked in their centerfielder for years to come.
McLouth wasn’t quite the same player the rest of that season in Atlanta, but his numbers were respectable enough: a .257 average with 11 homers, 36 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 84 games. The Braves figured he just needed some time to adjust to his new team, that he’d be fully comfortable the next season.
Instead, he was a complete flop.
McLouth tumbled below the Mendoza Line right from the start. He never got back over it, eventually losing his starting job, missing significant time recovering from a concussion and getting shipped to the minors, where he tried desperately to regain his confidence and his swing. He wound up hitting a dismal .190 in 85 games for the Braves.
“I started off slow and things just kind of snowballed,” McLouth said. “For whatever reason, I could never get out of it. I think it probably came to the point where I was pressing and trying to base myself off results rather than having good at-bats.”
McLouth likes the idea of coming up after Prado, who hit .307 last season. When he’s on base, there will be a big hole between first and second, and the left-handed-hitting McLouth loves to pull the ball. He’s also capable of bunting for hits and working the hit-and-run.
“There’s a lot of things you do out of the second hole, especially with a good leadoff hitter in front of you,” he said.
If McLouth falters, the Braves might go with his predecessor in centerfield. Jordan Schafer looked like a star-in-the-making when he claimed the job in 2009 — and homered in his very first at-bat. But he was injured shortly afterward, fell into a huge slump and was sent back to the minors.
He’s still trying to get his career back on track, but at least the 24-year-old appears healthy and ready to at least contend for a job.
Besides centerfield, the other main competition this spring is fifth starter. Youngsters Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy are the main candidates, with veteran Rodrigo Lopez (an NL-leading 16 losses for Arizona last season) brought in as a backup plan.
The 23-year-old Minor is a former first-round pick who impressed after coming up last season, but the left-hander struggled down the stretch.
“I could’ve done a lot better,” said Minor, who went 3-2 with a 5.98 ERA. “Sometimes in the past, I would just throw a pitch and not really know the purpose or why I was throwing it. The catcher put a finger down and I would throw it. I just kind of spaced out. In the big leagues, you’ve actually got to pay attention to every pitch.”
Beachy was a little-known right-hander in the minors until he was called up in September and, with just a few hours notice, got the start against Philadelphia in a crucial game. He took the loss, but his grit and poise impressed the Braves.
“I’ve been in pressure situations now,” the 24-year-old said. “I didn’t win, but I think I handled myself adequately enough that it gives me some confidence going forward. Whatever the situation in the foreseeable future, I know I can handle it.”