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Future may be now for Heyward

Braves see bright future for Heyward

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Braves manager Bobby Cox prepared his lineup for Sunday afternoon's game against the Astros, he selfishly wanted to provide himself with yet another day to watch Jason Heyward display his talents.

But after some persuasion from bench coach Chino Cadahia, Cox opted to provide a day of rest to Heyward, who had hit .400 (4-for-10) and seemingly produced a good impression on a daily basis while playing in each of the Braves' previous five Grapefruit League games.

"You've got to use some common sense," Cox said. "As much as I'm selfish and want to watch him play, he needs a breather every once in a while, too.

"He's been outstanding. Every game he's done something good, whether it's baserunning, catching the ball or hitting it or taking walks. His baserunning has been excellent. He's been very, very impressive."

With the baseball world watching intently to gauge whether he's capable of living up to the billing of being the game's top prospect, the 20-year-old Heyward has confidently accepted the challenge the Braves have presented while never shying away from their hope that he will prove he is ready to begin the season as their starting right fielder.

"There's a lot of responsibility on the young man, but so far he seems to be picking it up right where everybody expected him to be," Braves CEO and chairman Terry McGuirk said.

When McGuirk returned to Florida on Saturday, he told a couple reporters that he has spent the past week listening to fans in Atlanta buzz about Heyward, who has mashed cars during batting practice and -- more importantly -- shown the Braves that he already possesses the instincts needed to experience immediate success at the Major League level.

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"I'm going by what people who are more knowledgeable than I are saying about him, and that is that he will be the face of this outfield and this team for many, many years," McGuirk said. "That's a lot of responsibility, but everybody says there's enough talent to back that up."

Before Spring Training started, Chipper Jones said the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Heyward would earn his spot on the Major League roster once he proved that he had a firm grasp of the finer points of the game by doing things like hitting the ball the other way, throwing to the correct bases and showing patience at the plate.

So far so good for Heyward, who displayed his confidence and poise when he drew a walk after falling behind in the count, 1-2, in his first plate appearance of the Grapefruit League season. His advanced plate discipline was also on display Saturday afternoon, when he held his bat back on a 3-2 breaking ball that Roy Oswalt threw in the dirt.

Through his first 15 plate appearances, Heyward has drawn four walks and been set down on strikes just once. In other words, he has picked up right where he left off last year, when he combined to walk as many times (51) as he struck out at three different Minor League levels.

"He's not intimidated," Jones said. "When he steps in the batter's box, he's in command over every at-bat. He's aggressive, but particular. He's not pulling the trigger unless he's ... well good and ready."

While most top prospects have to produce at the Major League level before drawing this kind of respect from established stars such as Jones, Heyward has managed to do so with just 208 plate appearances above the Class A Minor League level.

"He feels he belongs, and he's showing everybody that he belongs," Braves All-Star catcher Brian McCann said. "He's a presence in our lineup."

Less than a month before potentially making his Major League debut, Heyward has already shown his Braves teammates that with his speed, power and maturity, he could immediately play a significant role in their attempt to get Cox back to the postseason one more time before he retires at the end of the season.

"He's going to be the next superstar that comes out of Atlanta," Jones said. "It's not a question of if, but when. It could be as early as this year. He's an impact player. Every ball that he hits in Spring Training, you can hear the crowd go, 'Ooh, ahh.' The ball just jumps off his bat. He hits balls that other people don't hit. I have no problem saying this kid is going to be a superstar right now."

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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