Posted on: March 8, 2012 5:13 pm

Bar is lower for Braves wunderkind, but need huge

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.

Category: MLB
Posted on: March 4, 2012 5:36 pm

Wind blows, Teheran (6 HRs) not good, either

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Is this any way to come back from a collapse?

The Braves, fresh off their mostly unnoticed September swoon (the Red Sox hogged most of the headlines), are off to a rough start in spring training. After being one-hit in the spring opener, two of their top pitching prospects got roughed up in an 18-3 defeat to the powerful Tigers, who hit nine home runs.

Julio Teheran, considered Atlanta's best pitching prospect and a candidate to make their excellent rotation, allowed six home runs in two innings on an exceedingly windy day. The wind was blowing hard from left field to right field, but two of the Tigers' home runs, one by Austin Jackson and one by Delmon Young, cut through the wind and went out in left. Prince Fielder hit his first homer as a Tiger, hitting the light tower high up in right field on another homer that would have gone out, wind or no wind.

"Tough day to pitch,'' Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "In the big picture, nobody got hurt and we got our work in.''

Gonzalez suggested four or five of the Tigers' homers might not have gone out on a normal day. But Gonzalez also noted that they were batting under the same conditions, and they hit no home runs (though the Braves' lineup consisted of kids and backups).

Another top Braves prospect, Randall Delgado, allowed four runs in the first inning. But the righthander Teheran definitely had the roughest day of anyone. Gonzalez said he didn't think it was necessary for him to speak to him to keep his spirits up, though pitching coach Roger McDowell will surely say a few words to see how he holds up. "There's no doubt in my mind it'll be fine,'' Gonzalez said. "These guys are pretty solid.''

It's been a rough spring all the way around for the Braves. It began when top starting pitcher Tommy Hanson suffered a concusssion in a driving mishap, hitting his head against the window after a blowup while on the way to camp. Hanson threw for five minutes today without incident, and will throw again before getting into a game.

Not too much should be read into spring games, especially ones where one team plays its regulars and the other its kids, but there are legitimate concerns about the health of some of the Braves pitchers. Tim Hudson, who's returning from back surgery, is expected back in early May, though it could be a bit sooner. Jair Jurrjens was out the last month last year with kneee toruble, but he is considered fine. The Braves do have terrific starting pitching depth, which they are going to need.

Category: MLB
Posted on: February 23, 2012 3:31 pm
Edited on: February 23, 2012 3:44 pm

The Winter Standings, from 1 through 30

The Angels and Marlins spent plenty, the Astros stood pat, and the Mets did worse than that. Here they, one through 30, from most improved team to least improved.

1. Angels. Anytime you add Albert Pujols when you don't really need a first baseman, that's quite a luxury buy. Maybe 10 years are too many, but he'll obviously make a major impact in the first years of that deal. C.J. Wilson gives them as good a first four as just about anyone. Plus, he comes directly from the main competitor.

2. Marlins. Jose Reyes is a monster get, when healthy, Mark Buehrle fits as the perfect veteran lefthander to pitch behind Josh Johnson and Heath Bell is a very good closer. Ozzie Guillen spices things up. Much more interesting team as they move to their new park.

3. Diamondbacks. Loved that they didn't rest on their laurels. Trevor Cahill bolsters their rotation and Jason Kubel their lineup. Also tried hard for Hiroki Kuroda, offering him $13 million, $3 million more than he got from the Yankees. Terrific effort by a team in an area hit hard by the economic downturn.

4. Nationals. I don't love Gio Gonzalez's 1.48 lifetime road WHIP, but he's a talented, young lefthanded starter who's exactly what they needed. Of course, they still could use a center fielder.

5. Yankees. Hiroki Kuroda is the solid starter they needed, and Michael Pineda has a chance to be better than that, especially if he masters his changeup. Jesus Montero will be a mega star but they needed the pitching, so it was a worthwhile gamble. A.J. Burnett is addition by subtraction.

6. Rockies. Michael Cuddyer is a huge get, even if he did cost $31.5 million over three years. Jeremy Guthrie steps in as the Opening Day starter and Tyler Chatwood has a chance, though rotation questions still remain. Casey Blake might not have a lot left at third base, but super prospect Nolan Arenado looks to be close.

7. Rangers. Yu Darvish is going to be better than Wilson. They flirted with Prince Fielder, but came up a few years short. Had they pulled that one off, too, they would have easily topped this list. A lefthander in the pen wouldn't have hurt, either.

8. Rays. Carlos Pena will bring a lot more punch than Casey Kotchman, and if healthy, Luke Scott brings more still. Somehow, they find a way.

9. Blue Jays. Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero and Darren Oliver represent a nice bullpen upgrade over Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch. Never made the huge deal folks were expecting, though.

10. Reds. They gave up a lot for Matt Latos, a talented pitcher who'll have to adjust going from pitching-firendly PETCO Park to Great American Ballpark. The pen is better with Ryan Madson in as the closer and strong lefty Sean Marshall over from Chicago. Looks like a contender.

11. Tigers. Owner Mike Ilitch gets props for the $214-million, nine-year band-aid he bought in Fielder after Victor Martinez's brutal knee injury.

12. Phillies. They imported Jonathan Papelbon, who has a longer track record, to replace Ryan Madson. Jim Thome fills the resident nice guy role left vacated by Brad Lidge's departure (and Juan Pierre won't hurt in that dept. either, assuming he makes the team). They have more versatility with Ty Wigginton adding to their bench strength.

13. Pirates. The new killer B's are here -- Rod Barajas, Erik Bedard, Clint Barmes and A.J. Burnett. The Bucs certainly should be better.

14. Mariners. Hong-Chih Kuo, Shawn Camp and Hisashi Iwakuma have a chance to help. But their offseason will turn on whether Montero becomes a bigger star than Pineda. The guess here is, he does.

15. Padres. They maximized the Latos trade. Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal could become stars, and Brad Boxberger may be the closer of the future. Huston Street ably replaces Bell. And Carlos Quentin may thrive back in his hometown.

16. Cubs. David DeJesus is a solid outfielder, and Paul Maholm will help. But their winter will turn on whether slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo is the player they think he is. The real loss for them was the new rule limiting bonus pools for drafted players.

17. Royals. Jonathan Sanchez is just the type of high-ceiling pitcher who fits, Bruce Chen was needed back and Jonathan Broxton is worth a flyer.

18. Dodgers. They managed to cut to below $90 million as cash-strapped Frank McCourt sells the team, but they pieced it together pretty well. Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang are solid starters but most of the other imports are extras. They also made an exciting secret grab at Fielder but were outbid by the Tigers. Their best move, though, was signing Matt Kemp for eight years at $160 million,

19. Indians. Given the restrictions of the budget, not terrible. Casey Kotchman looks to be on the upswing, and Derek Lowe is a veteran presence needed especially now that Fausto Carmona is better known as Limbo Carmona.

20. Giants. Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan are late bloomers, and they might do as well as the combo of Caros Beltran, Andres Torres and Cody Ross. The comeback of Buster Posey is probably the biggest key. Also like the smaller pickups of Clay Hensley and Ryan Theriot.

21. Cardinals. It's hard to lose Pujols (not to mention Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan) and not feel it. But somehow, the Cardinals seem to find a way. Beltran replaces some of Pujols' lost offense, if not his presence. Adam Wainwright's return is the biggest addition, though.

22. Orioles. Nobody did more different things, but it's tough to evaluate or guess what Wei-Yin Chen or Tsuyoshi Wada will become. Wilson Betemit was an odd signing in that no one saw a two-year deal coming.

23. White Sox. Love the Robin Ventura move (though I suspect they should have made him take a more-experienced staff). The team will be a lot younger, too, with all the kids acquired for Santos and Quentin. Buehrle is tough to replace, though.

24. Braves. Their big deal was for utlityman Jack Wilson, which says a lot. Never found the right deal for Jair Jurrjens or Martin Prado.

25. Twins. Josh Willingham has a lot of pressure on him to make up for the loss of Cuddyer and Kubel. Joe Nathan preferred to go to a contender. Not sure how much Jason Marquis has left.

26. Red Sox. I like the way they recovered from the loss of Papelbon by adding Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey. Cody Ross and Nick Punto are nice complementary pieces. But I think they'll miss Jason Varitek more than think. And they still don't have a No. 4 or 5 starter or starting shortstop after trading Marco Scutaro in exchange for "flexibility.'' Bobby Valentine was a great call for manager, and he does his best work when there are issues, so maybe he pulls it all together.

27. A's. They did a nice job collecting prospects (Jarrod Parker, Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole could be stars) but will be hard-pressed to avoid 90 defeats this year after trading Cahill, Gonzalez and Bailey. Big Talent Yoenis Cespedes and Mannyball spice things up. Interesting offseason.

28. Brewers. Tough to make up for the loss of Fielder. Aramis Ramirez is a nice middle-of-the-order bat, Alex Gonzalez is an upgrade at shortstop and Nori Aoki may work. Also lost some bullpen depth with Takashi Saito and Hawkins gone.

29. Astros. They took a flyer on the oft-injured Fernando Martinez but after failing to unload Wandy Rodriguez, Carlos Lee or Brett Myers, they basically return the same team. Which is not necessarily good news when you lost 106 games.

30. Mets. They lost the heart of the team (though an of-injured one), and Andres Torres wouldn't be my first choice to replace the dynamic Reyes. Actually, Pagan would have been better. But that's nitpicky. Let's face it, no one that cuts an unprecedented $50 million can do well.
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