Braves' top prospect showing 'star' potential

Jason Heyward putting up big numbers in minors

Huntsville, Ala. -– It's a scorching afternoon in a near-empty ballpark as Jason Heyward strolls into the batting cage.

A Kanye West songs blares through the PA system and echoes through the park.

We’re just wasting time.

Where’s the finish line?

In the minds of many in Braves Nation, it’s wasting time to have Heyward, a McDonough native, toiling away in Double-A when the obvious finish line is right field in Atlanta.

“It’s just a matter of when. It’s going to happen, probably in the very near future,” says his Mississippi teammate Greg Creek.

After 31 games in the Southern League, through Sunday, Heyward was batting .411 with six homers, 23 RBIs, a .492 on-base percentage and .729 slugging percentage. He has a sensational throwing arm and draws raves for his ability to hit with authority to all fields and his mature approach at the plate.

Now 20, he was recently named the game’s best prospect by Baseball America in its midseason rankings, when he was playing in the Class A Carolina League.

“He’s a freak,” Mississippi outfielder Matt Young says.

“You keep waiting for some sort of obvious weakness to pop up, but we haven’t found it yet,” manager Phillip Wellman says.

Heyward, who is 6-foot-4, often is compared to Darryl Strawberry, another tall, lean, left-handed player who can do it all. Huntsville manager Bob Miscik, who was in the minors with Strawberry, agrees because of “that build, the way the game seems easy to him, it doesn’t seem to take a lot of effort to drive the baseball.”

With the numbers he has put up — .296 with 10 homers, 31 RBIs in 49 games at Class A Carolina this year, .323 in 120 games at low-A Rome last season — maybe the best comparison is to Roy Hobbs, the fictional character in “The Natural.”

“I never liked comparing guys with people in the past,” Wellman says. “I think this kid is so special, he’s going to be a guy who sets a standard of being compared to. In a few years people are going to be saying about somebody else, ‘He reminds me of Jason Heyward.’ He’s extremely special.”

Huntsville pitching coach John Curtis was a major league pitcher for 15 seasons.

“There are certain guys,” he says, “who stand out at the lower levels you just know are not only good players, but ‘star’ is written on them. All the tools are there. With him it’s just a matter of time.”

How does Heyward handle all this hype?

“What hype?” Heyward says. “That’s how I handle it. I’m playing baseball. Let everybody else take care of what you call the hype. The pressure’s not on me. I know I’m batting third tonight, playing right field for the Mississippi Braves. All I do is go out and play baseball.”

Heyward is a bright, easy-going kid, “as a humble as they come. You’d never know he’s the No. 1 prospect in baseball,” Young says.

As he allows himself to daydream of the majors, it’s not about filling spots in a six-car garage. It’s about “being blessed with the opportunity to give back. I’d like to do more than swing a bat and throw a ball. I’d like to inspire people, be a good inspiration to young kids.”

This from a young man who turned 20 on Sunday. “Age,” Heyward says, “is a state of mind. I’m already in my career and I’m working to be in the highest position of it. Nineteen years old, 20 years old, whatever. I’m having a good time. There are worse jobs to have. I’m fortunate to already be able to enjoy my job, what I want to do for a long period in my life.”

With his numbers, and with a major league club in need of a power-hitting transfusion, why waste time?

“I think we have to be patient,” said Braves general manager Frank Wren, who shadowed the Mississippi team much of last week. “When you have young players that have the ability to be the kind of player he can be, you want to make sure they’re prepared at each step.”

There are cautionary tales in every organization about rushing players too quickly to the majors, where they find themselves overmatched and their confidence is trampled. Atlanta needs to look no further than Jordan Schafer, 22, who batted .204 with 63 Ks in 167 at-bats in his 50-game tenure to begin the season. Then again, there was once a 19-year-old named Andruw Jones who turned out OK.

“This situation is getting a lot more focus,” Wren continues, “but we don’t have a timetable for any of our players. We just kind of let them progress and as they show us they’re ready then we take them to the next step.”

“I’m very patient,” Heyward says. “One thing you had to learn growing up in my house is that patience is a virtue. That’s a good way to go through life. Be patient.”

That’s one of many life-lessons from Eugene and Laura Heyward, who have another son who is 6-6 and a daughter who is 6-1. Eugene (6-3) is an electronics engineer for ITT Industries in Warner Robins, and Laura is a quality analyst for Georgia Power. Both are Dartmouth graduates.

“They’ve been supportive of what I want to do,” Jason says. “They’ve instilled humbleness and don’t take anything for granted and try to live a good Christian life and you know you’ll have ups and downs but you learn from your mistakes.”

“That’s one thing we’ve liked about Jason from the very beginning,” Wren says. “He comes from a good family. His makeup will help him be successful.

Young adds: “He knows how to handle the failures. Not that he’s experienced many of those.”