Ender Inciarte's attempt to win a starting job in the Atlanta Braves' outfield is temporarily on hold as he recovers from a thumb injury.
Cristian Pache, a 22-year-old rookie this spring who was the Braves' choice over Inciarte to fill in during the postseason last year, is also competing for the starting job in center field.
Braves manager Brian Snitker said Thursday that Inciarte hurt his thumb when he got hit near the fists by an inside pitch during a recent at-bat.
"It's just been a slow process getting him treated and getting a bat in his hand again," said Snitker, who added he does not know when Inciarte will be able to play.
"He's progressing, but he's just not to the point where he could go out and get a game at-bat right now," the manager said. "We'll just have to wait and see."
This is a crucial season for Inciarte, 30, as he tries to reverse an offensive decline. He is entering the final season of a $30.5 million, five-year contract that includes a team option for 2022.
Inciarte hit .190 in 46 games last season after hitting .246 in 2019. He was a National League All-Star in 2017, when he batted .304, hit a career-high 11 homers and stole 22 bases while winning his second of three consecutive Gold Gloves.
Inciate's offensive funk last fall created an opening for Pache, who was the choice to start after the Braves lost Adam Duvall to an oblique injury in the opener of the NL Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
After Duvall's injury, Ronald Acuña Jr. moved to right field. This year's starting outfield is expected to have Marcell Ozuna in left field, Acuña in right and Inciarte or Pache in center. Duvall signed with the Miami Marlins in the offseason.
Pache, regarded as the organization's top defensive player in the outfield, earned the postseason opportunity despite having only four regular-season at-bats. He has only strengthened his status as a top prospect this spring.
"I've liked what Pache has done," Snitker said. "He's had some really good at-bats. We're going to keep running him out there. I feel good with where he's at."
Pache hit eighth in Thursday's game against the Tampa Bay Rays, which Atlanta won 2-0 as Acuña hit a solo homer and Kyle Wright allowed two hits in four scoreless innings.
Snitker is a fan of the pod scheduling being used by Grapefruit League teams for spring training this year. In fact, he'd like to see the format stick.
The Braves are playing only teams on Florida's Gulf Coast during the exhibition season. The reduced travel means the team has had more time at its facility in North Port.
"I've loved it, quite honestly," Snitker said. "I don't know if it's a possibility to keep it going. We've kind of just changed our routine to just doing all our work here, and that's worked our perfectly."
Snitker said the Braves' longest drive for a game has been only about 70 minutes.
"Guys can sleep in a little bit," he said. "We don't have to get started quite so early because we can hit into later in the morning."