Easy decision: Heyward makes Braves
Top prospect named Atlanta's starting right fielder
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- In addition to his unbelievable tools and his raw ability, it's his level head and mature attitude that can one day make Jason Heyward one of the game's greatest players.
Never was that more evident than on easily the biggest day of his baseball career.
During a Friday morning meeting at the Braves' Spring Training site, longtime manager Bobby Cox decided to make official what Heyward's big lefty bat eventually made a foregone conclusion: The super prospect will be Atlanta's Opening Day right fielder.
After a spring in which Heyward posted gaudy numbers, impressed all who watched and even smashed car windshields beyond the right-field fence at ESPN's Wide World of Sports, Cox and hitting coach Terry Pendleton met with the 20-year-old phenom to tell him he had made the team.
But while talking about the big announcement with the media shortly thereafter, Heyward kept a level head -- which is exactly what has made him one of the most impressive players in the Grapefruit League this year.
When asked about that three-minute meeting in the skipper's office, Heyward shrugged his shoulders and simply stated, "I'm on the team."
When asked if he had called anybody to spread the news, he said no -- even though two hours had elapsed at that point.
When asked if he'd celebrate his ascension to the big leagues on Friday night, he replied, "It's another day. I celebrate today. That's about it."
And when asked if the feeling had hit him yet, Heyward replied, "Has what hit me?"
"Not surprised, not relieved," is how Heyward summed up his thoughts on the news. "It just says, 'Let's go.'
"I've been focused on baseball the whole time. There's no difference in what I've been doing. Today's no different than any other day."
Oh, but it is.
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Friday was the day the man who can eventually become the new face of the Braves' franchise officially became a Major Leaguer.
The day Atlanta's offense possibly improved exponentially.
And perhaps the day Cox's aging process began to go backwards.
While Heyward chalked it up as any other day, the 68-year-old Cox -- retiring from managing at the end of the 2010 season -- seemed to unveil a grin every time he brought the phrases "Jason Heyward" and "Opening Day roster" together. But the Braves' skipper didn't consider his morning meeting with Heyward a shocking development, either.
Frankly, nobody who's seen Heyward play this spring would look at it that way.
"I would've had to be blind not to see what he showed," Cox said before his team's afternoon game against the Tigers.
"He's as good a player as I've seen all spring -- our team, any other team."
Now, Heyward -- still not officially on the Braves' 40-man roster -- will change his uniform number from 71 to 22.
Atlanta went into Spring Training saying it would give Heyward -- the No. 1-rated prospect by MLB.com and several other outlets -- a realistic shot at cracking the 25-man roster, and he didn't disappoint, batting .366 with a .500 on-base percentage in his first 16 Grapefruit League games going into Friday's contest.
But the interesting aspect is how it translates into the regular season for the Braves.
Chipper Jones sure is excited.
"You want to leave Florida with the best eight everyday players, the best 25 guys you have in camp," Jones said. "Jason Heyward is part of that starting eight.
"Whether he hits sixth or seventh or third, it just makes our whole lineup deeper. It's going to make our lineup turn over quicker, it's going to give us offense at the bottom half of the lineup, which is something that we missed for the better part of last year."
The Braves could have taken the business approach with Heyward.
Like the Rays did with Evan Longoria in 2008, they could have waited at least a few weeks into the season to make sure he doesn't achieve enough service time in his first season.
But the Braves went a different route.
|"He's as good a player as I've seen all spring -- our team, any other team."|
|-- Bobby Cox, on Jason Heyward|
"I think those are decisions you make in different circumstances with your club," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "If your club is a competitive club and you think this player is going to be an integral part of a competitive team, I'm not sure how you face the other 24 players, the staff, the fans and say, 'We're going to keep him in the Minor Leagues.' I can't do that. We'll figure out his contract way down the road."
Jones has a different theory.
"I would not be surprised to see the Braves try and lock him up this offseason," the Braves' third baseman said. "Take care of all that Super Two [status for arbitration] and stuff like that."
Signed to a $1.7 million signing bonus after being the 14th overall Draft pick in 2007, Heyward played at three levels in the farm system last season, batting a combined .323 with 17 homers, 63 RBIs, 10 stolen bases and a .408 on-base percentage in 99 games.
Heyward also brings premium defense to right field -- comparable to the kind Jeff Francoeur brought when he sported a Braves uniform.
"He does everything good," said Cox, who doesn't know yet where Heyward will hit in the lineup. "Runs above average, throws above average, his arm is above-average accuracy, he runs the bases way above average, catches everything in right field, and he's not just a swinger. He'll take a walk. For 20 [years old], I'm saying a lot."
Heyward, however, wasn't saying much. But he was excited -- in his own way.
"It was cool, it was awesome," Heyward said about receiving the news in Cox's office. "Never experienced it before, it won't happen again. It was a great feeling."
Come April 5, a great feeling will likely bestow upon Cox, when he gets a chance to pencil Heyward's name into the lineup for Opening Day against the Cubs.
Perhaps it'll lead to the perfect farewell tour.
"It'll be fun going out with a kid like Jason," Cox said, "that's for sure."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.