Phenom Heyward's future may be now

Heyward's future may be now

ATLANTA -- When Chipper Jones reminisces about going to Spring Training in 1994, he claims that he doesn't remember heading to West Palm Beach, Fla., with the pressure that came with the fact that Baseball America had just tabbed him the game's finest prospect.

Instead, Jones remembers going to camp with the desire to prove that along with being physically gifted, he also possessed knowledge of the situational fundamentals necessary to achieve success at the Major League level.

Spring Training
A look ahead
Previews
Quick hits

Spring Training links
Spring Training tickets
Travel packages
Spring Training schedule

When Mark Lemke was standing on second base with nobody out, Jones was going to make sure he hit the ball to the right side. When it came time to make a throw from the outfield, he knew throwing behind a runner might create reason to wonder if it was wise to transform him into an outfielder just to get his bat in the lineup.

Sixteen years later, as Jason Heyward prepares to come to Spring Training with the title of being widely considered the game's top prospect, Jones wants to provide the youngster a reminder that his odds of breaking camp with the big league camp will improve as he proves that he can do a lot more than just impress with his physical skills.

"If he does everything fundamentally correct, I dare say stardom is not too far around the corner," said Jones, who was set to serve as Atlanta's starting left fielder in 1994 before tearing his left ACL near the end of Spring Training.

Like with Tommy Hanson last year, there is little reason to wonder if stardom is in Heyward's future. But there is at least some reason to wonder whether the Braves will determine it's best to send the 20-year-old outfielder on the same path as Hanson, whose much-anticipated Major League debut was delayed as he toiled in the Minors for the first two months of the 2009 season.

But unlike in Hanson's case, which seemed to be financially motivated, the club has repeatedly said that Heyward will come to camp with the opportunity to exit Spring Training with a spot on the 25-man roster.

"If he's coming to camp, he's going to have a shot to win a job," said Braves manager Bobby Cox, who will welcome pitchers and catchers to camp on Feb. 19 and then stage the club's first full workout on Feb. 23.

With the versatile Melky Cabrera in place to share the outfield grass with center fielder Nate McLouth and Matt Diaz, Atlanta isn't going to be devastated if Heyward provides indication that he needs a little more time at the Minor League level.

But despite the fact that their newest phenom has totaled just 208 plate appearances above the Class A level, it seems like the Braves are hoping that the Jason Heyward era officially begins on April 5, when they welcome the Cubs to Turner Field for an Opening Day matinee.

General manager Frank Wren has provided this indication throughout the offseason, and Cox has referenced numerous times how much a then-19-year-old Heyward impressed him during his first big league camp last year.

This seems to be the opportunity of a lifetime for a young kid like Heyward, who was raised about 30 minutes south of Turner Field. But as he prepares to take advantage of this opportunity, he does so with the impression that he isn't feeling any added pressure.

"All I have to do is put my pants on, my cleats on, my jersey on, and just go out there and have fun, and everything else will take care of itself," said Heyward, who was taken by the Braves out of Henry County High School with the 14th selection in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft.

Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing approximately 230 pounds, Heyward possesses physical traits that would also gain attention from football and basketball scouts. But along with having power potential and above-average speed, he also brings a sense of maturity that leads you to forget he was sitting in a high school classroom just three years ago.

"You just know that his parents did a heck of a job with him in his growth as a young man," Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton said. "He's a big leaguer between the ears already."

Heyward, the son of two Dartmouth graduates, hit .323 with 17 homers and a .963 OPS while competing at three different Minor League levels last year. In the process, he compiled a .555 slugging percentage and still managed to walk just as many times (51) as he struck out.

These impressive statistics were compiled after Heyward came to his first big league camp last year and managed to hit .300 with three homers in 40 Grapefruit League at-bats. During this six-week stretch in camp, he never provided Pendleton reason to suggest adjusting his swing or approach.

"Everybody has to make adjustments normally," Pendleton said. "But [Heyward] is so big and strong that he might be able to overcome having to do that even when people are making good pitches on him. He's so big and strong that he can still make positive things happen when pitchers are doing what they want to do."

Over the next six weeks, Heyward wants to do whatever necessary to show the Braves that he is ready from both a physical and mental perspective to prove himself at the game's highest level.

"He's got poise," Jones said. "You can tell that just by how he carries himself. He just doesn't seem like a guy, personality-wise, who will succumb to pressure."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.