Guillermo Heredia is the Braves’ surprise April hero

Almost a month into the 2021 season, Guillermo Heredia has been the Braves’ best centerfielder. Imagine hearing that in February when the Braves arrived in North Port, Florida.

Heredia, 30, was a spring waiver claim from the Mets. The move went largely unnoticed; it was just one of many low-profile pickups for the depth-starved Braves during that time. The veteran had a non-descript spring and was optioned to the alternate site March 25.

If the Braves’ plans went accordingly, Heredia would be nowhere near the roster. He was available in case of an emergency. Injuries to centerfielders Cristian Pache and Ender Inciarte resulted in just that, prompting Heredia’s promotion. All he’s done since is force a longer stay in the majors.

Heredia has been a godsend for a desperate Braves outfield. He’s hit .281/.425/.594 with two homers, seven RBIs and seven runs scored. He had the game of his life April 18 when he had two homers and six RBIs in leading the Braves’ offensive onslaught against the Cubs. Heredia hadn’t shown this level of offensive success at any of his previous four other stops.

“He’s skilled,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He has an average to probably a plus arm. He runs really well. He’s done a great job. That’s a big hole when you lose two outfielders in a span of a couple days. We were very fortunate to have somebody like that to step in. His at-bats just keep getting better, actually. He’s done a really, really good job for us.”

It’s scary to imagine where the Braves would be without Heredia. Pache struggled before his injury, going 4-for-30. Heredia’s recent play led the Braves to option Pache to the alternate site, where he’ll try to find his swing. Inciarte, whose offensive limitations are well documented, was hitting well just before he suffered a hamstring injury.

Over the past three seasons, the Braves have done a superb job finding unheralded contributors. Players like Matt Joyce, Charlie Culberson, Adeiny Hechavarria and Billy Hamilton, among others, have played key roles during the team’s reign back atop the National League East. However Heredia’s season develops, he’s already made an unexpected impact.

As it has turned out, Heredia has been a perfect fit beyond his on-field play. His energy and enthusiasm makes him a perfect match for a Braves clubhouse loaded with such.

“He’s great,” starter Charlie Morton said. “I had the pleasure of playing with him in Tampa (Heredia played 89 games for the Rays in 2019). He’s great on the field, he’s exciting to watch. He has speed, plays the outfield well. He’ll give you good at-bats. But I also just enjoy being around him.’'

“When I found out we were going to have the opportunity to pick him up in spring training, I was really excited. I was excited for him, too, just knowing the kind of human being he is. I love the guy and I think he’s great.”

Morton, 37, has had many different teammates in his 14-year career, so the over-the-top praise is noteworthy. It adds credibility when the manager echoes the same sentiments, too.

“All the guys from Tampa say (nice things),” Snitker said. “He was a clubhouse favorite as far as his makeup and the energy he brings. He’s one of those infectious personality type guys. I’ll tell you what, he fits right in here. He has that high energy on the bench. He goes right with those other guys. He’s done a really good job.”

Clubhouse fit is always among the Braves’ priorities. While some might scoff at the concept of team culture, under Snitker, the Braves have undoubtedly built a tight, team-first atmosphere. It’s helped them maximize veterans like Heredia.

It’s only April and circumstances change – remember how dynamic Preston Tucker was to start the 2018 season before Ronald Acuna’s arrival – but Heredia deserves the applause. The Braves entered the season concerned about their depth. After 23 games, Pablo Sandoval, Ehire Adrianza and Heredia have mitigated those worries, at least for now.

“Tremendous teammate from the second I met him,” outfielder Ronald Acuna said, via team interpreter Franco Garcia. “He’s done a terrific job on the field. Truly, I hope he can stay healthy just so he can keep doing what he’s been doing on the field.”