He’s only 20 with limited experience above the low minor leagues, but Braves officials say Jason Heyward will enter spring training with every chance to win the right-field job.
Then there’s Jordan Schafer, 23, who last spring won a three-way battle for the center-field job and hit two home runs in the opening series at Philadelphia. A year later, he’ll go to spring training with a surgically repaired wrist and only a slight chance to make the roster.
The Braves’ current and former No. 1 prospects have something else in common: Both say they’re unconcerned about decisions that will determine whether they begin the season at Class AAA Gwinnett.
“Go out there and have fun, and everything else will take care of itself,” Heyward said last week, downplaying a question about whether he might be nervous as the center of attention when full-squad workouts start Feb. 23 at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Schafer said: “I just want to play. I don’t care where it is, I just want to play.”
Expectations for Heyward have grown as fast as he has. In recent weeks, the 6-foot-4, 245-pound slugger was rated the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball by ESPN, MLB.com, and Baseball America, which also named him minor league player of the year for 2009.
Heyward hit .323 with a .408 on-base percentage, 17 homers, a .555 slugging percentage and as many walks (51) as strikeouts in 99 games at three levels in 2009, including 49 games in high-Class A and 47 games at Class AA.
“He’s virtually skipping Triple-A if he makes the team,” manager Bobby Cox said of Heyward, who had three late-season games at Gwinnett. “That doesn’t happen often. But in his case we just feel that he should, if he’s going to come to spring training, be given a crack at it.”
In the past decade, Tampa Bay outfielder Rocco Baldelli is believed to be the only position player drafted out of high school who made an opening-day roster before reaching 200 at-bats above Class A and went on to play at least 30 games in the majors.
Heyward has 173 at-bats above Class A. That’s not many, but it’s seven more than catcher Brian McCann had above Class A before being brought to the majors in June 2005.
McCann hit .278 with five homers in 180 at-bats in a part-time Braves role that season and has made four consecutive National League All-Star teams since.
Heyward would be used in a starting role, since the Braves don’t want to have their most talented position prospect since Andruw Jones riding the pine while still developing.
The Braves’ other current option for right field is versatile Melky Cabrera, acquired from the New York Yankees in a December trade for pitcher Javier Vazquez.
Team officials express hope that Heyward has a solid spring to nail down the right-field job, in which case they could use switch-hitting Cabrera to complement Matt Diaz in left field and to spell Heyward against some lefties.
But if the Braves decide to start Heyward at Gwinnett, they could trade for or sign another outfielder – free agent Johnny Damon was among those still available at week’s end – or use Cabrera in right and Diaz in left, with Gregor Blanco or someone else in the organization as a backup along with utility players Eric Hinske and Omar Infante.
There might also be a chance, however slight, that Schafer could convince the Braves he’s ready to open the season on the 25-man roster, but he’s more likely headed to Gwinnett for at least the first part of the season to regain his swing and confidence.
Schafer was sent to Gwinnett at the beginning of June after struggling mightily while trying to play through an injury that was eventually diagnosed as a fracture.