Quartet vying to fill in for Upton in center field

Quartet vying to fill in for Upton in center field

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Eury Perez spent the past two seasons blocked by Denard Span in the Nationals organization, he established himself as one of those productive Triple-A players who might be just an opportunity away from proving they belong at the Major League level.

With Braves center fielder Melvin Upton Jr. set to miss at least the first month of the upcoming regular season with a left foot injury, Perez now has a chance to take advantage of the opportunity he has been seeking. He stands with Todd Cunningham, Eric Young Jr. and Zolio Almonte as the top candidates to fill Upton's spot in Atlanta's lineup.

"The other three guys have played [center field] more than Almonte, but we'll see," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We'll run them all out there and watch them.

While Almonte might be the clear underdog in this battle, Perez seems to be the early favorite to get a majority of the time in center field during Upton's absence.

Perez and Cunningham are the only candidates who could legitimately be deemed natural center fielders. Young has proved serviceable since making the transition from second base to left field three years ago, but he has totaled just 44 Major League games in center field.

Young is projected to bat leadoff and play left field against right-handed starting pitchers. If the Braves gain comfort with his with defensive capabilities in center field and want him to serve as their leadoff hitter on an everyday basis, there is a chance he could also play center on those days when Jonny Gomes plays left field.

With that being said, if the Braves are not comfortable with Young's defense in center field, Perez could handle the position on an everyday basis and fill the leadoff spot when Gomes is in the lineup. The 24-year-old outfielder has batted .310, been successful on 63 of 79 stolen-base attempts and produced a .777 OPS while totaling 193 games at the Triple-A level over the past three seasons.

"Perez is a natural center fielder," Gonzalez said. "[Braves third-base coach Bo Porter] had him with the Nationals and really liked him."

Before the Braves signed Perez to a Minor League contract, Cunningham stood as the most likely internal candidate to fill the center-field spot if Upton had either continued his struggles from the past two seasons or was sidelined by an injury for an extended period.

While hitting .276 with 10 homers and 39 stolen bases (54 attempts) over the past two years for Triple-A Gwinnett, Cunningham has been described as a fundamentally sound player who becomes more attractive over time.

"He might not be the flashiest or the quickest, but he's probably the most fundamentally sound [candidate]," Gonzalez said.

In the event that the Braves feel comfortable enough to put Young in center field on an everyday basis, Almonte could platoon in left field with Gomes. But Almonte's center-field candidacy is weakened by the fact that he has primarily played the corner-outfield positions throughout his professional career.

Mark Bowman is the Braves beat reporter for MLB.com. He has been covering the club since 2001.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.