Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – Jason Heyward reported to spring training Monday, then jaws hit the floor. Millionaire athletes reached for words to describe the masher from McDonough, whose already epic physique has become more so.
“He’s an outside linebacker,” pitcher Derek Lowe said of Heyward, who enters spring training with a good shot at winning the right-field job at age 20. “He’s huge.”
“He’s Jevon Kearse – he’s The Freak,” third baseman Chipper Jones said, comparing baseball’s top-rated prospect to the Tennessee Titans defensive end. “I’m telling you, he’s a bigger version of Freddy McGriff.”
Heyward is 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds, up from 230 last season. The 20-year-old McDonough native insisted he did nothing special this winter to add weight.
“Nothing’s changed, same workouts,” he said. “I’m growing. Twenty years old, growing into that grown-man strength hopefully soon.”
If he’s not there yet, it’s frightening to think what he might be when he gets there.
Most of his added weight appears to have been distributed across his muscular shoulders. Simply put: dude is shredded.
And yet, Heyward has maintained the narrow waist and V-shaped back that he had last spring training. That was when he first impressed Braves players, coaches and team officials with a quiet confidence, respect for others, and a skill set that was off the charts.
He had a big season at three minor-league levels, posting a .323 average with 17 home runs, a .408 on-base percentage and .555 slugging percentage in 99 games, including 49 games in high-Class A and 47 in Class AA.
He had only 13 at-bats in three end-of-season games at AAA Gwinnett, and his Arizona Fall League season ended after four games due to a low-back strain.
But despite the inexperience in the high minors, the Braves say if he’s ready, he’s getting the right-field job – and playing every day, not as part of a platoon.
He’s a five-tool player with a sharp mind and a work ethic that pleases an old manager.
“He’s big and strong,” manager Bobby Cox said. “I can’t wait to watch him swing tomorrow.”
The Braves will have their first full-squad workout Tuesday morning at Champion Stadium, where pitchers and catchers had the run of the place for the past three days.
Other position players weren’t permitted on the field for those pitchers-and-catchers workouts, but they hit in the batting cage beyond left field. Heyward scorched balls into nets Monday morning, then stopped to sign autographs for dozens of fans after a few shouted to him to “pleeeease!” come over as he strode in from the batting cage.
The only person who drew a bigger crowd of autograph seekers Monday was the legendary Hank Aaron, who made his annual visit to Braves camp.
Heyward looked at ease with fans and with reporters, noticeably more comfortable answering questions than a year ago. He’s a non-roster spring invitee for the second time, with a non-roster type of number. No. 71.
“He’s still No. 71?” Jones said. He grinned and added, “I’m going to say he’s not No. 71 at the end [of spring training]. Just a hunch.”
In other words, Jones believes Heyward will win the right-field job. Heyward said he will go about his business the same way he always does.
“No different approach,” he said. “I’ve got to go out there every time like I’m trying to win the job. So nothing’s changed. I think that’s the best way to go about it.”
But what about pressure? Everyone watching, waiting to see how he responds?
“No pressure,” he said, smiling. “I’m playing baseball, having fun.”
Jones was asked what advice he might offer Heyward entering spring training.
“He’ll be fine,” Jones said. “He knows how to handle it. I doubt any of us will have to say a word. I think we’ll just kind of sit back and watch, because the kid has a good head on his shoulders and he knows what he’s got to do.
“He was here last year, and he knew last year that he was going to be in this situation this year. He’s been preparing all year for this moment, and I have no doubt in my mind that he’s going to make the most of it.”
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