Bar is lower for Braves wunderkind, but need huge
Posted on: March 8, 2012 5:13 pm
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Jason Heyward, the Braves' would-be wunderkind, has heard the word potential before. The kid called the best prospect in baseball two years ago has heard it enough, it seems.
"That's just potential, one day what you might be,'' Heyward said. "I'm 22 years old. I'm going into the season feeling good and healthy. It's not going to come any earlier because of what someone says.''
People are going to talk about him, though. By now he knows this. The focus remains on him at Braves camp, and it will be on him, maybe forever.
Heyward said, "I'm my biggest critic,'' and those are nice words. But the critics will add up if he repeats his .227 performance of a year ago.
Heyward is a homegrown kid from the Atlanta area, a first-round pick who has it all, including the perfect physique and enviable upbringing, the guy who scouts picked out immediately as the game's next big star. No flaws, they said.
But only a select few can handle being the man. Heyward mentioned how the best players, players like Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Josh Hamilton, are all team-first players and how "it's never one person.'' With him, though, it might be, and he may need to get used to that. The Braves, whose strict budget allowed them to do nothing more than add utilityman Jack Wilson this winter, need Heyward to be special.
The Braves need Heyward to come close to the potential that was cited that spring of 2010 and most of his rookie year, before nagging injuries and other things caught up to him. His average dropped 50 points from .277 in his sophomore season, and the Braves have to have him hitting .277 again, or better. "They absolutely need him to be good,'' one competing GM said.
The Braves have pitching that may be as deep as anyone ("one to 12, we're pretty good,'' manager Fredi Gonzalez allowed), but their offense has considerable questions, with Heyward at the top of the list. People around the team often mention that "sophomore seasons'' can be tough on players. They hope that's all it was. "The league has a way of catching up,'' one competing GM said. "Video can be a cruel tool.''
So can expectations, which can be a funny thing, as he knows. No one expected him to hit 50 points lower last year. For his part, Heyward attributes much of it to an injury that cost him three weeks. "I wasn't healthy with the shoulder. That was a lot of it,'' he said. "I had an eight-game hitting streak going into May, then I had the injury and it was never the same from that point on. It's hard enough to play the game when you're healthy.''
Braves people will readily admit how vital Heyward is for them (there's no way around that), but at the same time they don't want him obsessing about someone else's expectations. He denies he is. But at the same time, as he pointed out, he's still only 22. "We're not asking him to win the Triple Crown,'' Gonzalez said. "He can do it. But we don't want him worrying about the 0-for-3s or 0-for-4s. Some of these young kids worry about producing. Just worry about adjusting, and those 0-for-3s will turn into 3-for-3s.''
Heyward knows this is one of the issues. "Adjustments are the name of the game,'' he said.
The book on him is that he can be tied up inside. New hitting coach Greg Walker says that's an oversimplification but Walker also said, "We're trying to get the right path to that ball in.'' Walker and Scott Fletcher went to meet and work with Heyward in January, and they've all been working ever since.
"The biggest thing is, we are not trying to change who Jason Heyward is,'' Walker said. 'We're just trying to get him in position to hit like he did in 2010. We're still working.''
Heyward lined a hard single in three at-bats and is now at .143 (2 for 14) this spring, with four strikeouts. As Walker said, they are still working.