Bright future for Braves’ prospect

By Ken Sugiura
Updated: July 12, 2009

ATLANTA — This was something new — Jason Heyward getting chewed out by his manager.

Last week, Heyward sat in the office of Rocket Wheeler, the manager of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, the Braves’ advanced Class A team. Wheeler was going after Heyward and teammates Freddie Freeman and Tommy Palica.

The Braves’ 2007 first-round pick from McDonough and one of their top prospects, Heyward was a little confused. He said he thought, “Let’s see what he has to say. I’ve been trying to stay on top of my game for the most part.”

Eventually, Wheeler uncovered his ruse. He actually had called the players in to tell them they were being promoted to the Class AA Mississippi Braves.

“He definitely had fun with it,” Heyward said of Wheeler, “but it was awesome to find out.”

The news has largely been positive for Heyward. The outfielder was the Braves’ sole representative in the All-Star Futures game Sunday in St.

Louis, an appetizer before Tuesday’s major-league All-Star game.

“It’s going to be an honor,” said Heyward, 19, before the game. “It’s going to be a lot of fun playing against the best.”

In his second full minor-league season, Heyward has continued to validate his potential. In 49 games for Myrtle Beach, hitting third and mostly playing right field, he hit .296 with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs. The home runs were particularly noteworthy, as Heyward hit 11 home runs in 127 games in 2008.

Further, of the other eight Carolina League players who through Thursday had hit nine or more home runs, only two had a better home run/at-bat ratio than Heyward and only one struck out less frequently.

His Myrtle Beach numbers bore the markings that one might expect of a player that Baseball America ranked in the spring as the Braves’ No. 2 prospect (behind pitcher Tommy Hanson) and No. 5 in all of baseball.

“There was just no part of his game that we felt wasn’t ready to go to the next level,” said Kurt Kemp, the Braves’ director of player development.

Freeman, drafted in the second round after Heyward in 2007, was no slouch, either, hitting .302 with 34 RBI in 70 games with an on-base percentage of .394.

“Most 19-year-olds don’t have the mature hitting approach these kids do in terms of their strike-zone discipline,” Kemp said of Heyward and Freeman. “They get their share of walks, they don’t strike out a lot, they get good pitches to hit.”

Heyward, who turns 20 in August, doesn’t look much like a teenager. He stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 235 pounds. He has packed on muscle, is broad across the shoulders and doesn’t think he’s finishing growing. While Heyward’s father, Eugene, is 6-3, Eugene has brothers who are 6-6 and a sister who is 6-1.

“People say I look taller month to month,” Heyward said. “As far as height, I would not mind stopping right now.”

All agree that Heyward will continue to develop physically.

“I don’t think he’s got that ‘man’ strength yet,” Eugene said. “But it’s coming. He’s still 19.”

The Braves are confident that power will continue to follow as Heyward’s overall hitting ability develops. Heyward turned heads in spring training by bombing home runs in games and in batting practice. That followed an offseason of workouts and batting-cage sessions with C.J.

Stewart, a private hitting instructor from Marietta.

“It did a lot for me,” Heyward said of his success in spring training. “I saw myself being able to put things to work, not just working towards it.”

With Mississippi, Heyward was hitting .333 with six RBIs in his first six games, through Thursday, and Freeman was hitting .261 with three runs in the same number of games.

The next challenge for Heyward is to maintain his success in Class AA, where some players are five or six years older than he is. Kemp said there is no timeline for a promotion to Class AAA Gwinnett and declined to speculate on a call-up to Atlanta.

“When they feel they want me up there [in Atlanta], I’ll be up there,” Heyward said. “All I can do is be ready when they say so.”