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Heyward arrives with high expectations

Heyward arrives with high expectations

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Jason Heyward's legend grew during his journey through three Minor League levels last year, he started to gain a "larger-than-life" persona throughout the baseball world.

Whether Heyward is able to live up to tremendous expectations remains to be seen. But when he reported to Braves camp on Monday morning, it was obvious that many of his teammates immediately recognized that he's already physically much bigger than most of the other heralded prospects that they have encountered during their careers.

After Derek Lowe mentioned that the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Heyward looks like an outside linebacker, Chipper Jones replied, "He's Jevon Kearse" in reference to the Tennessee Titans pass-rushing defensive end who has been labeled "The Freak."

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Throughout his brief Minor League career, Heyward has utilized his power and athleticism to do some "freakish" things. Now the 20-year-old outfielder, who is widely recognized as the game's top prospect, finds himself back in big league camp committed to take advantage of the opportunity to return to Atlanta as his hometown team's starting right fielder.

"I have the same goals," Heyward said. "I'm going to go out there and try to stay healthy and learn as much as I can. But this year, there feels like there's more excitement around the Braves and that's a good feeling."

Much of the excitement surrounding the Braves centers around the fact that they may soon introduce Heyward's physically imposing frame to the Major League level. During his run through the Minors last year, the young outfielder hit .323 with 17 homers and a .963 OPS.

Now through a conditioning program and natural maturity, Heyward has arrived in camp 15 pounds heavier than he was last year, when he impressed Braves manager Bobby Cox during his first big league camp.

"It doesn't feel too much different," Heyward said of his increased strength. "I'm growing up and I can carry it pretty well. ... Nothing has changed. Workouts have been the same. I'm just growing up and I'm hopefully growing into that grown-man strength pretty soon."

Along with being physically gifted, Heyward has provided every indication that he already possesses the maturity level that will help him as he deals with any pressures he could encounter during Spring Training or when he's given his opportunity to experience the Major League lifestyle.

"He's going to be fine," Jones said. "He's got a good head on his shoulders. He knows how to handle it. I doubt that any of us are going to have to say a word. We're just going to sit back and watch. ... He knows what he has to do. He was here last year and he knew last year that he was going to be in this situation this year. He's been preparing all year for this moment."

When the Braves stage their first full workout on Tuesday, Hank Aaron will be present to get his first look at Heyward. While he's heard about the young prospects accomplishments, Aaron said he is going to wait to see what the kid can do in the Majors before placing any expectations on his broad shoulders.

"I think he's going to do well, but I don't get excited until after I see them perform in the Major Leagues," Aaron said. "Then I will try to put an opinion on what I think they can do."

With fewer than 200 at-bats above the Class A level, Heyward still lacks the experience most prospects gain before getting their first crack at the Majors. But the Braves have come to realize that he certainly isn't the run-of-the-mill prospect.

If Heyward were to struggle during Spring Training, the Braves could begin the season with Melky Cabrera as their right fielder. But for now, they are providing every indication that they believe their highly-regarded prospect will prove that he is ready to start the regular season in the Majors.

"They're just going to go with whatever the player lets them know as far at-bats or anything like that," Heyward said. "It's just how they handle the game and handle themselves off-the-field also. It's a business and we're just going to see how things play out."

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

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