The word is out on Braves fast-track phenom Jason Heyward

By Scott Fragale

If you’re not familiar with Atlanta Braves rookie Jason Heyward, let’s try and paint you a picture. Imagine the bat speed of Gary Sheffield combined with the power of A-Rod, fused together with the plate discipline and raw talent of Albert Pujols. Just when the image is coming into focus, visualize a ripped 6-5, 250-pound frame holding all of that talent together and you get a better idea of why Heyward has fans in Atlanta and collectors throughout the country scrambling to get a piece of baseball’s next big thing.

Even at first glance, you see the difference between Heyward and other rookies. It’s a unique quality, a professionalism far beyond his years that says “thanks for the opportunity, you won’t regret it.”

Braves manager Bobby Cox knew he had something special when Atlanta selected the now 20-year-old Heyward after 13 other teams passed on him in the 2007 MLB Draft. So much so that Cox did the unthinkable earlier this spring and named Heyward his starting right fielder despite a very limited minor league career. In an age when prized prospects are treated with the softest kid gloves imaginable, Cox bucked the trend of grooming his fast-track phenom in the minors in favor of a meteoric rise to the big leagues.

Some insiders have suggested Cox rushed him through the Braves minor league system because he realized how special he was and wanted to manage him for all 162 games of what Cox has said will be his 25th and final season before retiring. Whether Cox made the decision for selfish reasons or not is up for debate, but it’s hard to question his ability to access talent.

While hardcore fans and collectors have had Heyward on their radar for the last couple years, the Georgia native has crossed over into the consciousness of the mainstream public just one month into his career.

“He’s created a huge buzz from what I can tell. My next door neighbor is an elderly woman whom I didn’t even know was much of a baseball fan, and she knew who Jason Heyward was,” said Carroll Rogers, sports writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “Only the avid fans knew much about him when he was drafted as a first-rounder in 2007, but over the last year or year and a half, his acclaim has really taken off, especially after being named Baseball America’s minor league player of the year last year.”

Heyward’s jaw-dropping spring training home runs (Heyward hit a 450-plus-foot bomb out of Champions Stadium that shattered the sun roof of assistant GM Bruce Manno’s 4Runner in the parking lot beyond center field) garnered national media attention and quickly made him a fan favorite among Braves fans. Other highly regarded rookies have drawn the attention of the tomahawk-chopping faithful in years past but according to several Atlanta-area shop owners, the buzz surrounding Heyward far outweighs anything seen before.

“(The buzz) has been out for a while now. With him being a local kid, we’ve known about him for a while now,” said Bob Davidson of On Deck Sports Cards in Atlanta. “Autographed baseballs, 8-by-10s, and cards of course are the big sellers. The most popular cards we’ve been selling are the Bowman Chrome rookie cards ($20). We’ve also sold a lot of signed baseballs ($69.95) and we’re currently sold out of photos ($39.95).”

And it isn’t just the Atlanta-area shops where Heyward is affecting sales. His Bowman Chrome autographed refractors are selling anywhere from $300-$500 online with his mid-level cards also drawing the attention of baseball card collectors nationwide. Heyward’s 2007 Bowman Chrome Draft Pick (No.54) is currently at $25, his 2007 Bowman Sterling Prospect Autograph (#JH) is at $165 and his 2007 Donruss Elite Extra Edition (No. 106) is priced at $200.

While his off-field demand is overwhelming within hobby circles, it’s easy to see what all the fuss is about when you take a look at his on-field capabilities.

Rogers has seen attention-grabbing talent come through the Atlanta system before and quickly understood why Cox and others were so high on Heyward after seeing him up close this spring.

“Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann were probably more recognized names as they first entered the Braves’ minor league system, especially Francoeur, because of all the recognition he got as a standout football player at Parkview High in Gwinnett, Ga.,” Rogers said. “But Heyward has matched them to this point in his career locally, and surpassed them nationally. They didn’t have ESPN cameras following them around in a spring training camp before they’d made their first team. Tommy Hanson created quite a buzz coming into camp last season but not to the degree of Heyward, who has been a national media darling all spring, and rightly so.”

From all accounts, Heyward has taken his new-found popularity in stride and appears to be more of a throwback star in that he allows his lumber to do the bulk of his talking. Despite his new-found fame and numerous demands on his time outside the lines, Heyward realizes he’s still a rookie and must continue to stay humble and develop his amazing god-given talents.

“From what I’ve seen, the Braves are being very accommodating with the national media and the Braves PR staff has been very diligent in trying to assist Heyward in scheduling and fulfilling his media obligations,” Rogers said.

 “He seems to be a really positive, mature, humble young man. Chipper Jones says he’s much more introverted than Jones was when he first got to the major leagues. Heyward is thoughtful, bright and gets along great with his teammates, who already have a lot of respect for him based on how he handled himself in the last two major league camps. He’s understated in his interviews with the media, or seems that way so far. That’s probably one reason why he’s been so successful to this point because he doesn’t seem to get caught up in all the hype.”

It took just one major league at-bat for Heyward to start living up to all of the hype. On Opening Day, with more than 60 friends and family sitting in the stands at Turner Field, Heyward added to his ever-growing legend by redirecting a Carlos Zambrano fastball into the Braves bullpen to become just the 11th Atlanta player to ever hit a home run in his first at-bat. The 414-foot blast sent the crowd into a frenzy and was just a small sample of what is yet to come according to many baseball insiders, including Tigers manager Jim Leyland.

The veteran manager was on hand for Heyward’s spring training sun-roof bomb and came away with a better understanding of the high praise for the game’s top prospect.

“I’ve never been one to get excited about the distance. Anything hit over the fence counts a point,” said Tiger manager Jim Leyland. “But obviously a young man with his size, with the strength he has, he looks like a really good-looking young player. I was very impressed with his patience at the plate more than anything. He didn’t chase any bad balls. (Albert) Pujols was the other guy who was like that.”

Through the first two weeks of the season, Heyward has enjoyed moderate success while enduring the typical growing pains while adjusting to the talent level of those around him. Sporting a respectible .267 average with three home runs and 10 RBIs in his first 30 at-bats, Heyward is, and will continue to be, a work in progress. Developing the ability to lay off the breaking pitches in the dirt will be his biggest challenge. One of his greatest attributes coming into the major leagues was his plate discipline and his ability to draw walks. Thus far, MLB pitchers have noticed Heyward diving out in front of low off-speed pitches and he can expect a steady diet of breaking balls until he learns to wait for better pitches up in the zone and accepting walks.

Although his patience at the plate will only come with more MLB seasoning, Heyward will also utilize the invaluable support systems the Braves have surrounded him with. 

“I can definitely see a relationship blossoming between Chipper Jones and Heyward. Jones has taken it on as his personal responsibility to groom Heyward for what he says will be a middle-of-the-order spot for him before too long,” Rogers said. “Jones wants to do for Heyward what David Justice, Fred McGriff and Marquis Grissom did for him – show him the ropes, make him feel comfortable, teach him how to make adjustments, especially with the mental side of hitting, since as Jones said, Heyward’s physical gifts are so obvious already.”

With all the physical tools and a future Hall of Famer playing the role of mentor and lead supporter, it’s hard to imagine anything but a successful career on the horizon for Heyward.

“I expect Heyward to continue doing what he’s done so far, meet every expectation and beyond,” Rogers said. “I’m sure he’ll have his moments where pitchers make some adjustments to him, but I think he’s a superstar in the making in right field and before long the middle of the Braves order. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him become one of the best ever to play for the Braves.”

Considering names like Murphy, Matthews, Jones, Maddox, Niekro and Aaron all having taken the field for the Braves, that’s some pretty high praise. Imagine that. SCM

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