Braves' Schafer is back, healthy and confident

All in 21 months.

Tumult thy name is Schafer, who no longer is a main topic of discussion when fans mull the upcoming season. The Braves traded for center fielder Nate McLouth last summer and for outfielder Melky Cabrera in December.

But fans shouldn't write off Schafer, 23, because the Braves haven't. The heavily tattooed kid is back now, healthy and ready to prove people wrong. Again.

"I know everybody doubts me now because of what happened last year," said Schafer, who hit .204 with two home runs, eight RBIs and 63 strikeouts in 50 games before getting demoted to Class AAA.

"But I know what went into last year. I have no doubts about myself."

Barring injuries to other outfielders, Schafer, who had wrist surgery in September, likely will begin the season at Class AAA Gwinnett. But he believes things will work out, somewhere and somehow.

"He's still one heck of a prospect," Braves manager Bobby Cox said.

Schafer has reported no pain since he resumed hitting two weeks ago and says McLouth and Cabrera aren't what he's thinking about.

"Truthfully, I was just talking to my uncle the other day, telling him I have no doubt I'll come back and have a really good year," Schafer said. "As long as I'm healthy, I'm fine.

"I know people are going to doubt me. The writers are going to doubt me ... maybe the organization is going to doubt me. But I have no doubts about my ability."

Braves general manager Frank Wren said there's no strict schedule for Schafer, who has only 499 at-bats in the past two seasons because of a 50-game HGH suspension in 2008 and the wrist injury last season.

"He just needs to play," said Wren, who reiterated what Cox said about Schafer still being highly regarded by the Braves.

He won the 2009 opening-day starting job with a strong performance in the first weeks of spring training, then burst out of the gate with two homers in the opening series at Philadelphia.

But in his last at-bat in the April 10 home opener, the fourth game, Schafer swung and felt a pop in his left wrist. He says his wrist never felt normal after that, although he didn't tell anyone how bad it was for a long time.

"I wanted to play," Schafer said. "But when I look back on it, it maybe wasn't the smartest thing. I may have made my wrist worse by doing things to try to play through it."

He struggled mightily, batting .176 with six extra-base hits in his last 45 games for the Braves, with a .289 on-base percentage and meager .216 slugging percentage in that stretch. He played with his wrist taped tightly, and tests showed only a bone bruise.

He kept insisting he could play, that his sore wrist wasn't affecting his swing. The Braves didn't have many options and kept playing him.

"I was doing stuff to try to get rid of the pain," Schafer said. "It was hard for me -- your rookie year in the big leagues, you're not going to go to Bobby and go, ‘Sorry, I can't go, I'm hurt.' "

But with strikeouts mounting and his average plummeting, Schafer was sent to the minors. There he kept trying to get through the injury with rest and cortisone injections, assuring everyone that his wrist was improving.

Eventually, another MRI revealed a hairline fracture. He had season-ending surgery Sept. 5.

"We played him with a broken hand. We didn't really know it at the time, but it bothered him the entire [season]," Cox said in December.

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