Omar Infante is back in a Braves uniform for the first time in half a dozen years, hoping to recapture a little of the magic that changed the course of his career. Infante came to Atlanta in 2008 as a relatively obscure infielder who’d been traded twice in a month. He left an All-Star super utility player.
Now at age 34, Infante is trying to prove himself again at the Triple-A level after several down years in Kansas City. Infante hit safely in his third consecutive game with Gwinnett on Friday in Charlotte, using a line-drive single in his second at-bat to make him 4-for-his-first-11 for the G-Braves.
If mojo means anything, Infante has that working for him.
“It’s nice,” he said before Friday’s game. “I have a lot of coaches that are friends. I’m happy to be back because they were really good years here, 2008, 2009, 2010.”
The Braves’ signing him to a minor league deal was a little-to-lose proposition. The Royals are on the hook for the estimated $13.8 million Infante is owed for the rest of this season and next. The Braves would pay him only a pro-rated portion of the major-league minimum if he makes their roster this season.
The Braves envision Infante back in a utility role and mentoring up-and-coming middle infielders Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies.
The Braves traded Infante after he hit a career-best .321 in 2010, when former Braves general manager Frank Wren opted for Uggla’s power potential over Infante’s versatility — he could play three positions on the infield and all three in the outfield. After a couple of solid seasons with the Marlins and Tigers, Infante landed a four-year, $30.25 million contract with the Royals.
But Infante batted only .238 with a .597 OPS in 2 1/2 seasons with the Royals. A week into the 2014 season he was hit in the face by a Heath Bell fastball. Miraculously, he was back in the lineup four days later, having required only stitches, but hit only .252 for the season. Infante said Friday the episode affected him the rest of that season.
“I felt afraid when I went to bat,” Infante said, through an interpreter from the Spanish-speaking media, Rafael Bastidas. “I used a helmet (with a face guard), but every time I saw it in the dugout, it reminded me of the situation. I only used it for two months.”
Infante said he had worked through his fears by 2015, but he still hit only .220 in 124 games. His defense kept him at second base for a Royals team that advanced to the World Series in 2014 before losing in seven games to the Giants. An oblique injury last year kept him out of the postseason, and he missed the Royals’ run to a World Series title over the Mets. Infante underwent elbow surgery to remove bone chips after the season.
He hit only .239 in 39 games this season before the Royals put him on waivers. Infante said he’s healthy now and trying to regain his form at the plate, having not played in a game since June 6.
“I’m trying to see the ball well, drive the ball,” Infante said. “I’ve had (problems) with timing, hitting a lot of fly balls and popping out.”
The Braves plan to keep Infante at second base in Gwinnett until he gets comfortable at the plate. Then they’d like to see him work at other positions. Third base and corner outfield spots are possibilities, though Infante hasn’t played the outfield since 2010. He played only second the past three seasons with Detroit and Kansas City.
When asked about it Friday, Infante said he’d be more than willing to play the outfield again. That’s one of the reasons the Braves appreciated him in their clubhouse — his willingness to move around the field and to teach others to do the same. Infante helped mold former Brave Martin Prado into a super utility player as well.
If all goes well, Infante might even try to talk Prado, a good friend and fellow native of Venezuela, into signing with the Braves, too. Prado is up for free agency this winter.
“I would love that,” Infante said. And he flashed a familiar smile.
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