It’s now official that Spring Training sensation Jason Heyward, an Atlanta Braves outfielder, will make the Opening Day roster for the big club. Manager Bobby Cox further said that Heyward will be playing regularly as the team’s everyday right fielder against lefties or righties. It’s no surprise that the phenom is getting his shot, but the way he’s taken the Grapefruit League by storm this spring is impressive.
After a 2009 during which he rocketed from Class A all the way to AAA and was subsequently named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, Heyward was expected to continue his growth. The shows he’s put on in Florida, however, have exceeded expectations. His 450+ foot shot earlier this spring is already legendary and the Braves organization hasn’t shied away from questions about his ability and potential the way most clubs do to protect their young stars.
His organization, his manager, and his teammates are impressed and they’re expecting him to give them some pop in his first look at the big leagues. Heyward, by all accounts, is handling the attention, the incredible comparisons, and the mounting expectations quite well. He’s a well-grounded kid with a great demeanor, excellent work ethic, and a quiet confidence that he’ll adapt and find his comfort zone quickly at the next level.
Heyward has all the tools for success and coming up through the Braves organization should only help him. Booby Cox is one of the most successful skippers in Major League history and veterans like Chipper Jones should be able to help Heyward make the adjustments to life in the show.
One must remember, though, that Heyward won’t turn 21 until August and he still will face the challenges of any young player seeing Major League arms day after day. He’s ripped the cover off the ball at every level, but this is an entirely different animal. The NL East doesn’t have the greatest collection of arms, but he will see Roy Halladay several times as well as nasty lefties Cole Hamels and Johan Santana (if he’s healthy).
It’ll be interesting to see how he fares early on and how quickly pitchers can find ways to get him out. He’ll be a hot pick for Rookie of the Year coming out of the gate, but I expect the typical development curve with his share of droughts and tough stretches. However, with his physical (6’4″ , 245 lbs) and athletic tools he will punish any mistakes he sees and will get plenty of opportunities to learn and grow.
If he does have a regular season similar to what he’s done this spring, he will give the Braves a much-needed boost in their attempt to regain the NL East crown and he’ll provide plenty of fireworks and excitement for the always apathetic fans of Atlanta.
Despite the new Ice Age that has settled over most of the country, apparently we really are going to have a spring this year, at least in Arizona and Florida. Today begins the grand spectacle of Spring Training and many greater writers than I have pontificated upon this marvel of American sporting life. It’s a time when Alfonso Soriano can still run and hit, when Zack Greinke can single-handedly drag the Royals to the playoffs, and when Stephen Strasburg is all potential and promise.
For the next six weeks we’ll be able to drool over veterans who’ve recommitted and rebuilt their bodies (or decommitted and rebuilt their bodies, a la Jose Guillen) and nameless studs with jersey numbers in the mid-nineties. Every team has added the pieces that will transform them into a winner or has invited to camp the kid who will blossom into a star. Even Ben Sheets has a locker with his name on it. Now we can officially begin scouring the newspapers (er, websites) for box scores and rotation battles and begin chalking up victories in our heads. Everyone’s magic number is the same and every lineup looks dangerous.
The excitement will build gradually: a successful ‘pen session for the rehabbing starter, a long blast by the newly signed free agent, a scoreless inning by the young flamethrower. Eventually we’ll get to pink slips and narrowed rosters and our teams will take focus. Good springs will surely transfer to great regular seasons and bad springs are nothing but slow starts and all will be well when the games really count.
Hitters will blast the ball out of parks in the desert air of Arizona, and pitchers will blast the ball off the tee of golf courses across Florida. Players will regain their leathery tans along with their fastball timing. Everything will begin to unfold slowly and gain steam throughout the summer. By the time the leaves turn and fall most of what we know now will be proven wrong and we’ll be left again to wonder how we didn’t see it coming.
For now though, we’re confident in what we see and feel. Everything is going to turn out right this year. This is going to be the greatest season ever and the summer of our lives. So let’s get out the bats and balls and get this thing going. Turn off the hot stove and forget about the transactions page and hypothetical lineups; it’s time for some real baseball and it couldn’t come a moment too soon.