Henry County’s heavy hitter is only 20 years old and has limited experience above the low minor leagues, but Braves officials have said that Jason Heyward will enter spring training with every opportunity to win the right-field job. And said it repeatedly, to any and everyone.
And if that’s the case, most who’ve seen Heyward hitting – or seen him simply existing – in recent weeks would probably put money on him being in right field for the Braves’ opening series with the Cubs April 5-8 at Turner Field.
Because the masher from McDonough is impressive. Straight up.
“He’s virtually skipping Triple-A if he makes the team,” manager Bobby Cox said of Heyward, who played in three late-season games at Triple-A Gwinnett and has only 50 games and 173 at-bats above Class A.
“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,” Cox said.
As we mentioned here a few weeks ago, in the past decade only one position player drafted out of high school — Tampa Bay outfielder Rocco Baldelli – made an opening-day major league roster after having fewer than 200 at-bats above Class A, then played at least 30 games in the majors.
But Heyward is obviously special, evident from his No. 1 rating in baseball prospect lists by ESPN’s Keith Law, MLB.com and Baseball America, which also made him its 2009 minor league Player of the Year.
He’s talented, mature, smart — the son of two Dartmouth graduates, by the way -– and big.
At 6-4 and 245 pounds, he’s about 20 pounds heavier than when we saw him last spring. But he’s still got the narrow waist and V-back. I used to say he looked like a young Derrek Lee when Lee came to the Marlins from San Diego. But now he looks more like full-grown Derrek Lee. And then some.
Jordan Schafer hopes to play center plenty this spring with Heyward in right. But Schafer, who missed much of last season with a wrist injury, hopes dearly to avoid any miscommunication on fly balls to the gap.
“I saw him a couple of weeks ago and I was like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to call for the ball really loud,’” Schafer said, laughing. “Because I’m not trying to get ran over by him. I don’t want no part of that.”
And while we’re on the subject of Schafer, 23, think about how much has happened to him since this time last year.
Schafer entered last spring as a bit of an underdog in a three-way battle for the center-field job. Remember, Josh Anderson was out of options and widely regarded as the favorite because of his speed and his performance in callups with the Astros.
That plus the fact that Schafer had served a 50-game suspension the previous season for HGH, and no one knew if that missed time might set him back.
It didn’t. He was terrific for the first few weeks of camp and won the job, leading the Braves to trade Anderson and give Schafer the center-field job. He hit two home runs in the opening series at Philadelphia, but hurt his wrist in the home opener and was never the same after that.
He’ll enter spring with a surgically repaired wrist and only a slight chance to make the roster, because the Braves have incumbent center fielder Nate McLouth and versatile Melkey Cabrera, and because they want Schafer to get plenty of at-bats and regain his form and confidence.
“I want to play as much as I can in spring training,” Schafer said. “I understand I’m probably going to have to start off a little slow, just because I haven’t played in a while. But I want to play as much as I can.”
Schafer and Heyward, former and current organizational No. 1 prospects, have something else in common: Both say they’re unconcerned about the decisions that will determine if they begin the season at Triple-A Gwinnett.
“Go out there and have fun, and everything else will take care of itself,” Heyward said, downplaying a question about whether he might be nervous as the center of attention when full-squad workouts begin.
Schafer said: “I just want to play. I don’t care where it is, I just want to play.”
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 missed time with several nagging injuries last season, then was pulled out of the Arizona Fall League after only four games as a precautionary measure after straining his lower back, which sent pain radiating down to his glute and upper hamstring.
But he’s been working out now for several weeks without any problems.
While Heyward has only 173 at-bats above Class A, that’s seven more than catcher Brian McCann had before being brought to the majors in June 2005 directly from Double-A.
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 surely don’t want to have their most talented position prospect since Andruw Jones riding the pine often while he’s still developing.
The Braves’ current other option for right field is 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 acquire another outfielder — you blog denizens might have heard, free agent Johnny Damon is still available –- or use Cabrera in right and Diaz in left, with Gregor Blanco or someone else in the organization as a backup with utility players Eric Hinske and Omar Infante.
There might also be a chance, however slight, Schafer could convince the Braves he’s ready to open the season on the 25-man roster. But that seems highly unlikely. He’ll probably go to Gwinnett for at least the first part of the season to regain his swing and confidence.
And while he reiterated this week that he hopes to stay with the Braves, he also said he knows that it’s a business and that he could end up elsewhere. Braves officials say Schafer is still a strong prospect in their view, and that he just needs to play and stay healthy.
♣The inevitable Damon update: I’ve said several times that the Damon-to-Braves possibility ain’t over till he signs elsewhere or the Braves come out and say they have no interest. Either of those developments could happen soon, but hadn’t just yet.
Last week, assistant GM Bruce Manno said on Bill Shanks‘ radio show that the Braves like their team as is, but added, “never say never” regarding the Damon situation.
Hey, there’s no question that agent Scott Boras never anticipated Damon being unsigned this long. That’s obvious. And wherever he ends up, he’s going to likely be making about one-half (or less) of the $13 mill salary that he made during his previous contract. Also now obvious.
But remember, last year Bobby Abreu didn’t sign until Feb. 11, and Boras client Garret Anderson didn’t sign with the Braves until Feb. 24. (And spring training started almost a week earlier last season, so were more than a week into camp when Anderson signed.) Damon has plenty of time.
Boras is trying to convince the Braves, the Tigers and one other team — the Rays? — that Damon is the difference-maker between them winning their division or at least making the playoffs, or staying home in October. From that group, Detroit probably has the most money it’s willing to spend.
With the Braves, who knows if Boras is right about the playoffs? He could be, if Nate McLouth has a season like last year, when he was slowed by hamstring problems and, perhaps, vision problems (he was fitted for contacts after the season). But if McLouth is healthy, the Braves might already have a strong leadoff hitter.
Damon would give the Braves a proven leadoff option, allow them to move McLouth down in the order, and eliminate any need to push Heyward too soon if he has any problems during spring training and looks like he could use more seasoning. But can he play every day? Or hit much outside Yankee Stadium?
If the Braves had Damon and then decided this spring that Heyward’s ready, they could either trade Cabrera or Diaz late in spring training, or go into the season with both of them as backups — although that might necessitate starting the season with only one backup middle infielder (Infante), something they might not be comfortable doing.
But maybe it’s a moot point, if they don’t have enough interest in Damon to make an offer, or one that’s even close to what Boras is looking for.
It’s funny that two teams — Atlanta and Detroit — connected to Damon these days have GMs, Frank Wren and the Tigers’ Dave Dombrowski, who refuse to comment about such matters in the media. Wren was a Dombrowski assistant with Montreal and Florida, and the two are friends.
That publicly silent GMs situation probably isn’t the ideal situation for Boras to do his negotiating magic, which works best when he can work one team off another.
But Boras has been through enough of these situations to not get antsy as spring training nears. Damon isn’t going to get anywhere remotely close to what he and Boras believe he’s worth, but in the end he’ll get signed.
And if he helps a team reach the playoffs, will anyone be surprised?
♣ Javy Lopez, retired and not too restrained: For those who might have missed my mention of it in the comments section of the last blog, Curt and Steve over at the Atlanta Baseball Talk podcast did an in-depth and revealing interview last week with former Braves catcher Javy Lopez.
The retired slugger was open and informative in an interview — you can listen to it here — that stretched for about 50 minutes, addressing such topics as steroids, working (and not working) with Greg Maddux, catching Kent Mercker’s 1994 no-hitter against the Dodgers, and, did we mention, steroids?
Javy hit 212 of his 260 career homers during 12 seasons for the Braves, including 43 homers in 2003 at age 32 (he totaled 17 and 11 homers the previous two seasons, and 23, 15 and 8 homers in the next three seasons with Baltimore and Boston, his last three seasons in the majors).
When asked about Mark McGwire’s recent admission to use of ‘roids and human growth hormone, Lopez had this candid reply:
“Back in the days, steroids wasn’t — I wouldn’t say wasn’t illegal in the big leagues, but it wasn’t a concern,” he said, and paused. “I guess that’s the right thing to say. I guess what Major League [Baseball] was actually looking at players for [at that time], was to make sure they don’t have any kind of drugs like marijuana or cocaine. I guess that’s what Dwight Gooden got suspended for, and a lot of players got suspended for drugs, but never for steroids until the [Jose] Canseco comments in, what, 2002, 2003?”
One of the hosts (Curt or Steve) then asked Lopez, “So you say there wasn’t that much concern or spotlight on it. Was it around? Was it something the players knew was around in the late 90s, early 2000s? Was it spoken about?”
To which Lopez replied, “Well, everybody seen players getting big, hitting the ball harder, home runs and stuff. All of a sudden – boom — they got the big contract and everybody’s like, ‘You know what, did that, it worked for him, why not do it?’ Everybody … you know, starting from the minor leagues, the minor leaguers were the first to try all that, because they’ve got this hunger to be in the big leagues. So they do whatever it takes to make it to the big leagues and to not only make it to the big leagues, but to be the best in the big leagues. And that’s what steroids do to you.
“I mean, that’s what steroids were doing to a lot of players in the big leagues.”
(Can I just add here: Oi! Ok, had to do that.)
Lopez was then asked flatly if players were looking at steroids as an option and using them.
“Uh, yes,” he said. “In my opinion, yes…. I mean, how can I explain this? It’s like if you’re going to race cars, if you’re going to race a car and some people are using nitro in the fuel [Lopez laughed], and you see them winning all the time, and you’re using regular gas – you know what? If they’re using nitro and they’ve been winning, well, I’d be stupid enough not to use nitro, too.”
To which one of the hosts replied that he [the host] couldn’t believe everyone else didn’t think that as well.
“Exactly,” Lopez said. “But the game of baseball — just because you use steroids doesn’t mean you’re going to hit the ball hard. I know a lot of players – not a lot of players, but I know players — who use steroids and you know what? They struck out more. Couldn’t hit the ball.
“The bottom line is that in baseball, you still have to hit the ball. Steroids do not help you hit the ball or make you the ball better. You still have to have the talent. You still have to have the talent. But it does help you to hit the ball farther.”
Asked about pitchers also using steroids in that period, Lopez said, “Pitchers obviously throw a lot harder, throw a lot faster [on steroids]. You face a pitcher who’s using steroids. The pitcher’s facing a batter that uses steroids…. It’s a mess. We talk about that. But you know what? I’m glad that everything came out. Now when you see a player out there, you can’t say 100 percent, but at least you know [with some degree of certainty] they’re clean.”
Lopez also was asked if he had any idea who’d replace manager Bobby Cox if he retires as planed after the 2010 season.
“Somebody told me she heard Bobby mention Eddie [Perez] as his replacement,” Lopez said. “I was like, ‘Wow. Let’s go, Eddie. I need a job.’ ”
Lopez added, “Don’t be surprised if Bobby decides to go another year. Why not? It’s tough to be retired. I didn’t realize that until I didn’t play in 2007.”
The site is www.atlantabaseballtalk.com.
♣ A Southern Sun Devils reunion: At some point during the 2010 season, the Braves’ major league roster could include two of 25 members of Arizona State’s 2000-2009 All-Decade team. And I’ll bet you can’t name either one of them without going to Google or some other source.
Take a few minutes. Think hard.
Utility man Brooks Conrad and outfielder Mitch Jones. (I said you wouldn’t have guessed it.)
Conrad played at ASU from 1999 to 2001 and had a big year in 2000, batting .336 with 10 homers and 67 RBI in 59 games, with a .442 OBP and 1.017 OPS.
Jones is a minor-league free agent who signed with the Braves this winter, after leading the minor leagues with 35 homers in 2009 as a 31-year-old outfielder on the Dodgers’ Triple-A Albuquerque affiliate.
Jones hit 27 homers at ASU in 2000 to surpass Bob Horner’s 22-year-old school record of 25. In two seasons at Tempe, Jones hit .348 with 38 homers and 131 RBI, including a 92-RBI season in 2000 when he was a first-time All-American. His single-season school homer record still stands.
The most familiar name on that Sun Devils All-Decade team: Dustin Pedroia (2002-2004).
♣ Etc.: With 426 homers, Chipper Jones is the active leader for a player who spent his entire career with one team. Phillies legend Mike Schmidt (548) is the all-time leader…. Jordan Schafer told me that he lost about 30 pounds, down to 169, during the weeks after his season-ending wrist surgery. “I didn’t do anything,” said Schafer, who said lost his appetite until he was cleared to resume workouts. The 5-foot-11 outfielder is back up to a solid 202 pounds now.
♣ Speaking of BBQ (we are now): I’m down to my last half-pound or so of the pure pork pleasure of Parker’s, out of the two containers I bought — one from Bill’s, one from Parker’s — when we were up at my parents’ house in Wilson, N.C., for Thanksgiving
I tried to make them last — the BBQ, not my parents — and kept them in the freezer — again, the BBQ, not my parents — bringing about a half-pound or so every few weeks from freezer to ‘fridge. But we’re running out now, after a couple dozen or so BBQ sandwiches on hamburger buns. Every time I heat it up, the smell of that vinegar and pork ‘Q just makes the house smell like heaven.
Maybe we could get Parker’s or Bill’s to sponsor the blog in the future? Have a menu and phone number up in the right-hand corner with delivery procedure and all that? (Actually, the AJC would probably not take kindly to us working out such an arrangement on our own.)
♣ Baseball on the brain: With spring training just around the corner, thought I’d do a little baseball tuneage for today’s lyrics.
Of all the great baseball-themed songs over the decades, including Steve Wynn, Peter Buck and Co.’s clever, well-researched <em>Baseball Project</em> alt-rock album from just a couple of years ago, I still haven’t heard a ‘ball tune better than Tom Russell’s heartbreaking ode to Mickey Mantle, “The Kid from Spavinaw.”
Russell is one of the finest singer-songwriters alive, and when you listen to this and other songs by him you might just wonder, like I have, how such a brilliant guy never got more widespread fame. Of course, I think the same thing when I listen to Joe Ely sing something like “She Never Spoke Spanish to Me.” Check it out here.
You can sample Russell’s “The Kid From Spavinaw” and a bunch of other great tunes of his including “The Pugilist at 59,” “Out in California” and “The Death of Jimmy Martin” at this site. You won’t be sorry.
“THE KID FROM SPAVINAW” by Tom Russell
I was born in Oklahoma, 1931
Outside the town of Spavinaw
Where the red dust clouds the sun
And I ran beneath your diamond skies
And I drank your waves of grain
My name is Mickey Mantle, boys
And baseball is my game
My father’s name was “Mutt”, boy
And he worked down in the mines
He pitched to me in the evening
At least a thousand times
A thousand times again, in my nightmare and my dreams
You’re going to live in the house that Ruth built, kid
You’re going to make that Yankee team
Sure enough, the Yankee scout comes drivin’, right down route 66
He’d have never come to Spavinaw class D ball in the sticks,
but I happened to be playing in an old wood ball park way out on the mother road
That Yankee scout he signed me and I went up to the the show
Strike 1, that was the drinkin’
Strike 2, there go the knees
Then my old man died in Denver
Some type of lung disease
When God starts throwing change ups
You can’t swing with fame or wealth
If I’d known I’s going to live this long
I’d have taken care of myself.
I don’t miss the lights of Times Square
I don’t miss Toots Shore’s bar
I miss my old man pitchin’ baseball
Near the shed in our backyard
I wish that he were still alive
To see these trophies on my shelf
If I’d known I was going to live this long
I’d have taken better care of myself
I was born in Oklahoma, 1931
Outside the town of Spavinaw
Where the red dust clouds the sun