Sports

Heyward could soon be face of the Braves

ATLANTA - He's a big dude with bigger ability - seriously huge ability - and many believe Jason Heyward will be the face of the Braves before long.

Yet there are reasons why the strapping outfielder doesn't really fit the description of power hitter the Braves seek this winter. And his being a left-handed hitter - the club needs a righty - isn't the main factor.

It's that Heyward is only 20, with one week of competition above Class AA. That's why it might be a little while longer before the Heyward Era begins at Turner Field - and why the Braves will probably search elsewhere this winter for another big bat.

It could be an outfielder or a first baseman, depending whether the Braves try to retain free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, whose 25 homers with three teams this season were four more than Brian McCann's Braves-only team high.

The Braves would like to bring back LaRoche, but are reluctant to commit long-term with first-base prospect Freddie Freeman perhaps a year or two away.

Why don't the Braves pencil in Heyward for 2010 and go from there? They say they want to be as sure as possible that he's ready when he gets to the majors.

"You don't want to put a whole lot of pressure on him," general manager Frank Wren said. "He's handled everything very well and I think we're just going to let him be Jason Heyward for now and not put too much on him."

While the Braves will consider the free-agent market, they seem inclined to pursue a bat via trade. They have a surplus of starting pitching and will probably consider any offer for Derek Lowe and perhaps for Kenshin Kawakami.

They might listen to offers for ace Javier Vazquez, though they seem reluctant to consider moving him and his club-friendly $11.5 salary.

Wren said it's undetermined if they will focus on adding an outfielder or a bat at another position.

"A lot of it's dependent on how you put your club together, the positions you have to fill and the available talent," he said. "This year we were so focused on our starting pitching that we felt like we had to give some players a chance to show us what they could do. In some cases guys made the most of it; in other cases they didn't and we had to make some adjustments midseason."

They traded away Jeff Francoeur in July and replaced second baseman Kelly Johnson with Martin Prado, who thrived in his first regular duty. The Braves might have openings in left or right field, depending how they use Matt Diaz.

Then there is Heyward.

"He has the kind of ability that doesn't come around all that often," Wren said of Baseball America's minor league player of the year, who hit .323 with 46 extra-base hits (17 homers), 63 RBIs and a .963 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) in 99 games at three levels.

He wowed the Braves as a 19-year-old last spring training. Someone mentioned Monday to manager Bobby Cox that Heyward could add power to a team that was 22nd in the majors in homers, much less to an outfield with the third-fewest homers (45) in the National League and second-worst slugging percentage (.393) in the majors.

"He can give you quite a bit of everything, I think," Cox said. "He's done well in everything. ... He's on the fast track, let's put it that way. I'm sure he will be a huge topic of conversation at these meetings."

At the organizational meetings in Florida next week, Wren, Cox and other team officials and scouts will discuss who's available and who the Braves should pursue.

Heyward's name always comes up when Braves officials discuss their future. He and six other Braves minor leaguers will go to Arizona this month to play in the Fall League, where Tommy Hanson was the first pitcher named league MVP in 2008.

Hanson was brought to the majors in June and went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts.

"When the time is right, I'm sure we'll welcome Jason to the big league club and let him start the progression of being the kind of player that he's going to be," Wren said of the 6-foot-4, 225-pound McDonough, Ga., native.

The son of Ivy League parents - the both attended Dartmouth - Heyward is mature, bright and confident. He turned 20 in August and was the fifth-youngest of 27 players to win Baseball America's prestigious player of the year award.

"It was great to see that Braves jersey on the cover (of Baseball America) and have people think highly of the organization," he said. "It was nice to see the hard work pay off and to be able to represent my family, my organization, my hometown."

Scouts call him the top position player developed by the Braves since Andruw Jones. It seems not a question of whether he'll be a franchise cornerstone, but when. A general consensus puts June 2010 as his over-under arrival date, though some predict he'll be too impressive in spring training to keep off the roster.

Wren said that producing such quality talent in the minor league system is important when trying to build contending teams without enormous payrolls.

"Unless you're the top-echelon payroll teams, you can't operate unless you have a strong minor league system," he said, "and you also have to have those players that you figure to have impact at the major league level to really compete.

"You can add guys coming to the major leagues, but if you want to compete for divisions and to get to the World Series, you have to have the high-end guys."

The restocked Braves minor league system also gives Wren the resources to explore trades, particularly when they have quality pitching throughout their organization, including such elite prospects as Julio Teheran, 18.

"I don't think anybody's ever completely off-limits, but there's always a group that you don't want to trade," Wren said. "As we talked about last year with Hanso, when his name came up, we're not going to trade him. The same goes for Heyward; we're not going to trade him. I can't see a situation where we would trade him. So, as rare as those kind of guys are, we've had a couple of them in the last year, which speaks a lot for our minor league system."

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