Could Pache win job in center? He thinks so

February 24th, 2021

Though it might not have been comfortable to throw Cristian Pache into the fire during the second inning of Game 1 of last year’s National League Championship Series, the experience gave the Braves reason to believe their top prospect might indeed be ready to be their everyday center fielder.

“Even now, he looks like a completely different guy coming to camp,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He should be more confident in what he’s doing. As they get older and play more, they get a little more confident in what they’re doing and understand what they’re doing. I don’t think he could have performed any better [in the NLCS].”

Pache became Atlanta’s everyday center fielder when Adam Duvall strained an oblique muscle just six outs into the NLCS. He was thrust into this role with his previous Major League experience consisting of four regular-season plate appearances and some appearances as both a pinch-runner or late-inning defensive replacement in the postseason.

But Pache wasn’t overwhelmed by the big stage or the bright lights. The 22-year-old outfielder went 4-for-22 with a double and a home run. He also showed why he’s considered a future Gold Glover when he robbed Max Muncy of a home run in Game 5.

Had Duvall not been injured, Pache wouldn’t have gained the chance to show what he could do at the big league level. Consequently, he would have likely been targeted to begin the upcoming season at the Triple-A level.

But because Pache made the most of the unexpected experience, he will now compete with veteran outfielder Ender Inciarte to determine who will begin this season as Atlanta’s starting center fielder.

If Pache isn’t deemed ready for an everyday role, the Braves could give the job to Inciarte or move Ronald Acuña Jr. to center field. The second option would create the need to find a corner outfielder. The first option would essentially be gambling on the revitalization of Inciarte, who was not placed on the postseason roster after hitting .190 with a .512 OPS in 131 plate appearances last year.

“I’m not going to say it’s a competition or anything like that,” Snitker said this past weekend. “We’re going to have Spring Training. Everybody is going to get a chance to play a lot. We’ll just see what happens.”

While Pache might seem to be the best fit for the job, the Braves certainly don’t want to put any undue pressure on their prized young outfielder, who ranks as the game’s No. 12 prospect per MLB Pipeline.

Pache’s offensive development didn’t really begin to materialize before 2018, when he suddenly showed some signs of power potential. He hit .278 with 11 homers and an .815 OPS over 433 plate appearances (104 games) for Double-A Mississippi and then spent the final month of the '19 season producing a .747 OPS for Triple-A Gwinnett.

Snitker has been encouraged with the mechanical adjustments Pache has made while spending the past year attempting to make his swing cleaner and more consistent.

“I feel like it’s been a continuous growth throughout the seasons,” Pache said. “I think the time has allowed me to learn the strike zone a little better and shrink it some. I think that has helped me connect the bat to the ball a little better. Once you do that with a little more consistency, I think the power comes as well.”

Before baseball was shut down by the coronavirus last year, Pache was targeted to spend at least a couple more months drawing daily plate appearances at the Triple-A level. Instead, his development became drawing daily at-bats against fellow prospects like Ian Anderson and veterans like Mike Foltynewicz at the team’s alternate training site.

“I think it was very beneficial for some of us, because there were a lot of talented pitchers working out with us,” Pache said. “We got to see different pitchers and we got 10-to-15 at-bats a day.”

Now, the Braves must decide whether to immediately give Pache the everyday job or require him to earn it after spending another month or two compensating for the natural development time he lost last year.

“I look at every Spring Training as an opportunity to grow and develop,” Pache said. “I think with every opportunity you have with a team, you have to come in with a willingness to adapt and learn and grow.”