2/20/2014 6:30 P.M. ET
Pitching prospect Graham does his best to stand out
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Blessed with a strong arm and fueled by a burning competitive desire, J.R. Graham has been a standout dating back to the days when he was playing baseball with his suburban Oakland, Calif., childhood friends.
But the fact that Graham truly stands out whenever he takes the field -- with his pant legs resting at his knees, occasionally atop traditional stirrups -- is a product of his desire to allow his mother to better identify him on the field.
Julie Graham has had a lifelong battle with Best disease, which has steadily impacted her ability to see details and perceive colors. Though legally blind, she has continued to savor those opportunities to sit in the front row of baseball stadiums and use binoculars to watch her son pitch.
While playing baseball at the youth levels, Graham often wore white cleats to simply give his mother a chance to pick him out among the other players, who primarily wore dark-colored cleats.
"I've grown up knowing she is legally blind and that she has trouble seeing," the highly regarded Braves pitching prospect said. "But you would never know it if you met her. It's just something she has dealt with her whole life."
Graham's mother will travel to Florida next week and stick around for the early portion of the Grapefruit League schedule. This should give her a few opportunities to be in the stands to pick out her son, who is steadily gaining confidence that he no longer has to worry about the right shoulder discomfort that sidelined him most of last season.
Graham's lingering apprehension affects him when he begins to warm up in the outfield grass. But he said by the time he gets on the mound, he no longer worries about his shoulder.
"I think at some point it's just going to click," Graham said. "I know I don't have pain. I've thrown without pain this whole camp and this whole offseason. I think at some point my brain is going to have to take over and just let loose."
Schafer preparing for backup role in outfield
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Five years have passed since Jordan Schafer produced an impressive Grapefruit League season that earned him an opportunity to begin the 2009 season as Atlanta's starting center fielder.
Since then, Schafer has battled injuries, endured a miserable stint with the Astros and resuscitated his career, when given a chance to return to Atlanta last year. Now, he's back in Braves camp, preparing to fill a backup role and keeping the confidence that he still has the ability to be an everyday player at the Major League level.
"Obviously, I still have a lot to prove to myself and a lot of people," Schafer said. "I want to play every day. There would be something wrong if I didn't feel that way."
Along with adding some muscle to his frame, Schafer once again spent this offseason working out within eyesight of the Braves Spring Training complex with Tom Shaw, the renowned speed coach whose clientele includes NFL stars and world-class sprinters. In addition, he focused on making the adjustments necessary to prove more successful against left-handed pitchers.
Schafer proved to be a valuable backup outfielder last year as he hit .312 with a .399 on-base percentage in the 146 plate appearances he compiled before suffering a stress fracture, courtesy of a ball he fouled off his right foot June 26. But even during this successful stretch, he recorded just two hits in 16 at-bats against left-handed pitchers.
The Braves are once again targeting Schafer to serve as a versatile backup outfielder, who can provide value with his glove and speed. His value as a pinch-hitter is limited courtesy of the .173 batting average he has compiled in 208 career at-bats against left-handed pitchers.
"He's a guy who is your perfect fourth outfielder," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He can play all three positions way above average. He can run off the bench and pinch-hit. He's a great commodity."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.