Braves lose Melvin Upton Jr. for start of season

The Atlanta Braves were hoping center fielder Melvin Upton Jr. would finally return to form in 2015. Instead, those hopes have been put on hold as the team turns its attention to finding a suitable replacement to open the season.

On Friday, the Braves announced that Upton will miss the majority of spring training after being diagnosed with sesamoiditis in his left foot. He underwent both an X-ray and MRI, the results of which revealed the ailment. Sesamoiditis is characterized as inflammation in the bone behind the ball of the foot.

The team announced that Upton’s foot will be placed in a short leg cast for the next two weeks, after which time he will be in a walking boot for four to six weeks. He is not expected to be able to begin baseball activities until early April, which means a stint on the disabled list and the necessary rehab assignment to follow could push his season debut back to May.

Upton and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez discussed the news with MLB.com on Friday.

In Upton’s absence, Atlanta has a multitude of in-house options to choose from. Among the outfielders on the 40-man roster who have significant time in center field, both Eury Perez and Todd Cunningham fit the bill. Veteran Eric Young Jr. is in camp on a minor league deal and could provide a short-term solution as well. The Braves could also choose to give Zoilo Almonte the chance to break out of a likely platoon role in left and give center field a go.

Perez, 24, was claimed off waivers from the Yankees in January and would appear to be the front-runner for the job, at least in the early going. Prior to his brief stop in New York, he was ranked among the Nationals’ top prospects by Baseball America from 2010 through 2014. That was thanks in large part to his speed, which sometimes ranked an 80 on the scouts’ 20-80 scale. Perez is a contact hitter, a proficient bunter and an excellent base stealer. He sports a .305/.360/.384 line with 268 stolen bases in 699 career minor league games.

The Braves will certainly explore all the possibilities, but Perez is the most experienced center fielder at the ready. He’s played 585 games there, utilizing his plus-speed to go along with a solid and accurate arm. While he has gotten just 23 plate appearances in 26 games for the Nationals and Yankees, Perez may finally have lucked into an opportunity to prove himself at the big league level.

Should Atlanta decide to go with a more experience hand, Young fits the bill. He owns a similar skill-set to Perez, but has spent the majority of his outfield time in left field. Young, 29, led the National League with 46 stolen bases in 2013 and swiped 30 more in just 100 games last season. A switch-hitter with a .252/.320/.332 slash line in 1,589 plate appearances, Young has made just 34 starts in center field in 504 career games.

One thing that Upton’s injury does is open the door for Young to find a spot on the 25-man roster when the team heads north. His versatility immediately comes in handy, with time at second base and all three outfield spots.

Young told me last week that he came to camp ready to fit in wherever and whenever needed:

“The main discussion so far was to have all my gloves ready. They didn’t necessarily need to tell me that. My mindset coming into it [was] you always want to give yourself the best opportunity to get on the field. If I can do that by being able to play many positions, then I’m going to make sure that I work at all those positions. That way, whenever the situation comes up, they’re not nervous or hesitant to put me in there.  That’s something they don’t need to tell me. That’s something I know. Just be ready whenever the call comes, because you might get it at the last second and you don’t want to be caught off guard. You want to be ready at any time.”

Cunningham is a soon-to-be 26-year-old who had a couple of brief stints with Atlanta in 2013. He put together a strong season in his second go-around with Gwinnett last year. Cunningham batted .287/.347/.406 with 38 extra-base hits, 58 RBI and 19 steals in 120 games there. He’s logged 446 of his 512 minor league games in center field and has been rated above average defensively. Cunningham makes consistent contact from both sides of the plate and runs the bases well. Like Perez, the only thing lacking has been an opportunity to get regular at-bats.  With Atlanta’s once-vaunted trio of the Upton brothers and Jason Heyward now a thing of the past, this may well be the opening he’s been waiting for.

Almonte, 25, figures heavily in the Braves’ left field plans. Yet another switch-hitter in this outfield mix, Almonte enjoyed most of his success against right-handed pitcher last year. That makes him the ideal platoon partner for Jonny Gomes in left. He brings some power to the table after belting 18 home runs in 105 games for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2014. The Yankees gave Almonte a look in each of the last two seasons, though he batted just .211 with two homers and 12 RBI in 47 games in the Bronx.

Almonte has spent far more time on the corners in his career. He’s a solid defender with a good arm in left, who is probably good enough to spend time in right field as well. However, his prospects as an everyday center fielder are somewhat tenuous. Almonte has logged 116 games in center field during seven minor league seasons, but only 42 of those come above A-ball and since 2011.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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