Heyward gives Braves flexibility

By Mark Bowman
Updated: November 14, 2009

Jason Heyward

Jason Heyward

ATLANTA — When the Braves sent Jason Heyward to compete in this year’s Arizona Fall League, the plan was for him to gain the added development that would provide them even more confidence to place him on the Opening Day roster next season.

This plan was clouded when a lower back strain led to hamstring discomfort that limited Heyward’s AFL season to just four games. But this setback doesn’t negate the possibility that the 20-year-old phenom could still find himself as Atlanta’s starting right fielder when the 2010 season begins.

Heyward, who was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year in September, has totaled just 173 at-bats above the Class A level. But his tremendous athleticism and advanced maturity could allow the Braves to overlook fears of rushing him to the Major League level too soon.

“Jason is a special player,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said.

“We’ll continue to evaluate his progress and see how he performs in Spring Training.”

While there is certainly a chance that Heyward could earn his shot at the Majors during Spring Training, the Braves may also attempt to provide themselves with some insurance via an offseason acquisition of a veteran outfielder.

But as the Braves attempt to create some payroll flexibility by trading either Derek Lowe or Javier Vazquez, they may put more of an emphasis on filling their needs for a closer and a first baseman.

With Nate McLouth set to resume his duties in center field and Matt Diaz coming off a season during which he proved that he can be productive in an everyday role, Atlanta already possesses a pair players who can capably fill two of its three outfield spots.

Other internal outfield options include Jordan Schafer and Ryan Church.

But Church is expected to be non-tendered next month and Schafer, who has missed significant time due to injury and a suspension the past two years, will likely begin the season with Triple-A Gwinnett.

While it would be nice to add an outfielder like Matt Holliday or Jason Bay, the top available outfielders on the free-agent market, Heyward’s presence may provide the Braves further reason not to get into the expensive bidding war that will determine which clubs secure their services.

Instead, the Braves might be more likely to attempt to land a cheaper outfielder either via free agency or via the trade of Lowe or Vazquez.

Because he’s owed $45 million over the course of the next three seasons, the 36-year-old Lowe will have far fewer suitors than the 32-year-old Vazquez, who is coming off one of the finest seasons of his career and is set to make $11.5 million before becoming a free agent at the conclusion of the 2010 season.

Heading into the offseason, the Braves had some hope that the Yankees may show some interest in Lowe. But the World Series champs have since made it known that they will not make a play for the 36-year-old sinkerballer, who went 15-10 with a 4.67 ERA this past season.

Still, the Braves remain hopeful that they may find a fit for Lowe with either the Angels or Brewers, a pair of teams looking to add a durable veteran presence to their rotation.

Before exploring the options of acquiring either Lowe or Toronto’s Roy Halladay via a trade, the Angels are expected to wait to learn what it will cost to bring John Lackey back to serve as their ace.

As for the Brewers, they have provided indication that they are more interested in Vazquez, who recorded the second-most strikeouts (238) in the National League and issued just 44 walks this past season.

If the Braves construct a deal with the Brewers, they may be able to lure Corey Hart to Atlanta to at least serve as a short-term solution in their outfield. The athletic 27-year-old outfielder recorded consecutive 20-20 seasons (20 homers and 20 stolen bases) and then provided nothing but disappointment while hitting .260 with 12 homers and 11 stolen bases this past summer.

Hart made $3.25 million during his first arbitration-eligible season this past year. The presence of a player with his potential could provide the Braves the option to send Heyward to the Minors for the first couple months of the season to gain seasoning and delay the start of his arbitration clock.