ATLANTA -- When Ender Inciarte returned to Turner Field on Saturday, he had improved enough to keep the Braves hopeful he could rejoin the lineup in the next few days. But Inciarte's hamstring discomfort lingers, and if the disabled list is necessary, the club will consider giving Mallex Smith his first call to the Majors.
"That's the easiest [option] because [Smith] is on the [40-man] roster, he's a center fielder, and he's a speed guy," manager Fredi Gonzalez said of the Braves' No. 11 prospect. "But we'll check with our people and say, 'Hey, is he ready? How close is he to being ready? If we bring him up for a short amount of time, is it going to hinder his progress or will he be OK with it?'"
The Braves will also need to decide whether they want to begin his MLB service clock this early in the season and consequently set up the possibility that Smith could become arbitration-eligible earlier than expected.
But before delving too deep into these discussions, the Braves will closely monitor the progress of Inciarte, who slightly strained his left hamstring while running to first base during the first inning of Friday's loss to the Cardinals. The center fielder did not feel anything pop and thus likely exited the game before a significant injury.
If Inciarte continues to make progress, there is a chance he could return to the lineup on Monday or Tuesday to face the Nationals. But even if he is ready at that time, the Braves may opt to give him another day because they do not want to subject the hamstring to the cold and wet conditions that are projected to exist in Washington early next week.
Drew Stubbs will likely handle the center-field duties for the final two games of this weekend series against the Cardinals. But if the Braves need a long-term solution, they could turn to Smith, whose stock rose significantly during Spring Training as he hit .346 (9-for-26) and showed defensive improvement.
Still, he struck out in seven of those at-bats and has tallied just 317 plate appearances at the Triple-A level. It could be in his best interest to develop further in the Minors before gaining a lasting spot in the Majors.
If a short-term fix is needed, the Braves may opt to utilize Smith as their primary center fielder for a couple of weeks and then allow him to extend his development for a few months with Triple-A Gwinnett.
Odds and ends
• Kelly Johnson got his first start of the season Saturday night, replacing Hector Olivera in left field. Jeff Francoeur is the only position player who has not started a game for the Braves this season. Francoeur could get his first start Tuesday, when the Nationals are scheduled to send left-hander Gio Gonzalez to the mound.
• Before surrendering an MLB-record three pinch-hit homers to the Cardinals on Friday, the Braves had allowed as many as two pinch-hit homers in a game just three times -- June 22, 1995, at Cincinnati, July 13, 1973, vs. Montreal and June 4, 1958, at San Francisco.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.