Candidates excited about Braves’ center-field opportunity

No player in a position battle wants to sound pleased that someone ahead of him got hurt. But there’s no denying that Melvin Upton Jr.’s foot injury will give someone else a chance not just to win a spot on the Braves roster and in their opening-day lineup.

Eric Young Jr., Eury Perez, Todd Cunningham, Zoilo Almonte: The cracked door just opened wide.

Those are the candidates to replace Upton, who is expected to miss all of spring training and perhaps the first month or more of the regular season with sesamoiditis, or inflammation in a bone behind the ball of his foot.

“Any opportunity you can get is one you have to jump on,” said Cunningham, the only one of the candidates not new to the organization. “They signed a bunch of young guys, so everybody is kind of out for blood. You can kind of smell blood in the water, so it’ll be a fun spring training, a lot of people competing for a couple of spots.”

Almonte is bigger than the others – about 6 foot 1 and 220 pounds – and considered a corner outfielder rather than center fielder. So if he’s to make the roster, it would likely not be as the fill-in center fielder.

Young, Perez and Cunningham are the leading candidates, and Young and Perez might have an edge in that each is a speedster who could bat leadoff.

“You’re kidding anybody if you don’t see it as an opportunity,” Young said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. Melvin hopefully gets healthy soon. But in the meantime, I came into camp with a bunch of gloves, ready for whatever situation or scenario they threw at me. And right now with my speed, we’ve got a void in center and I’ve got this opportunity.”

Perez, 24, is a natural center fielder who hit .310 with a .371 OBP and 26 stolen bases in 67 games last season with Washington Nationals minor league teams. He has just 23 total plate appearances in callups with the Nationals in 2012-2013 and Yankees in 2014. Braves third-base coach Bo Porter, who held that position with the Nationals in 2011-2012, gave high marks to Perez as a defender.

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

“I played for Washington for seven years and never saw opportunity,” Perez said. “Here I see more opportunity. It’s way better. Everybody says, ‘You’ve got a chance this year.’ It’s going to be a good year.”

Young, 29, is the only one of the candidates with significant major league experience – nearly 1,600 plate appearances in parts of six seasons. He has just a .252 career average and hit .229 with a .299 OBP last season in 316 plate appearances with the Mets. Two years ago in the only season in which Young was a lineup regular, he had 36 extra-base hits (seven triples) and led the National League with 46 stolen bases.

Young has much more experience in left field (197 starts) than center (34), but the Braves plan to give him a long look in center. Manager Fredi Gonzalez likes the potential of Young at leadoff, and said his center-field experience was limited because he played on Colorado teams with Dexter Fowler and Mets teams with Juan Lagares.

“Obviously I came up as a second baseman, and I like to think I made myself into a pretty decent left fielder,” Young said. “And that’s just all from just repetitions and a lot of my pregame work, making sure I get myself in the right position, learning the ball off the bat. Same thing for center. It’s just a matter of me getting the reads off the bat…. I think come game time I’ll put a lot of people’s minds at ease with my ability out there.”

Gonzalez said Cunningham is probably the most fundamentally sound outfielder of the candidates. He’s almost 26 and spent the past two seasons in Triple-A, totaling just 10 homers and 39 steals in more than 1,000 PAs.

Almonte had 18 homers in 454 PAs for the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate and was one of the best hitters in the Dominican Winter League, but is better suited for the outfield corners.