Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – For the first time this spring, the Braves used a lineup Tuesday night against Philadelphia that looked like one they might use opening day.
“Pretty close,” manager Bobby Cox said of the possibility. “[But] I don’t know if Heyward will be hitting that low, if he keeps going like this.”
Cox was smiling when he said it, but that comment reflected two truths: Jason Heyward is playing his way onto the opening-day roster, and the 20-year-old phenom seems too good to bat seventh for very long.
“Chipper might be batting seventh,” said veteran third baseman Chipper Jones, who returned to the lineup Tuesday after missing three games with a jammed left thumb.
Jones said that in jest, but turned serious when he said the hot-hitting Heyward should — and would — make the opening-day roster.
“We want to leave out of here with the top 25 guys in camp, and he’s certainly one of them,” Jones said of the right fielder, who was Baseball America’s minor league Player of the Year in 2009.
Cox and general manager Frank Wren insist the Braves will take the best 25 on their opening day roster and say that financial issues would not keep Heyward off the roster.
That situation, for those unaware: If the Braves keep him in Class AAA for a couple of weeks to begin the season, they could assure Heyward won’t be a free agent before the end of the 2016 season, instead of 2015.
If they keep him in Class AAA until the end of May, the Braves could assure Heyward is not eligible for arbitration until after the 2013 season, instead of after the 2012 season.
Last season, the Braves kept top pitching prospect Tommy Hanson in Class AAA until the first week of June. They said it had nothing to do with future service time and everything to do with having other starting pitchers who were ready.
The Braves could justify that move, too. Kris Medlen indeed pitched better than Hanson in April for Class AAA Gwinnett, before Medlen was the first pitcher called up as a fill-in starter. At the time, the Braves also said they didn’t want to bring up valuable Hanson just for a start or two before Tom Glavine came off the disabled list.
As it turned out, the Braves released Glavine just before the veteran left-hander was to be activated from the DL, and before Glavine would have collected a $1 million roster bonus.
Hanson joined the rotation then and went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts, finishing third for National League Rookie of the Year.
In the case of Heyward, the talent and immediate potential impact might make him an exception to those rules that some teams with payroll restrictions have followed in recent years.
With the Braves lacking another power bat for their outfield, Heyward’s potential performance might be too great to seriously consider keeping him off the opening-day roster.
“I think we need him,” Jones said. “I think we need him to be a contender in the East. We need him from Day 1. I would have said we needed Hanson from Day 1 last year. They didn’t think it was the right thing to do. It could have made a difference in the long run. It might not have, I don’t know.
“But the complexion of our lineup drastically changes if Jason Heyward’s not in there.”
Heyward hit .417 (5-for-12) with two doubles, a home run, four RBIs and a .611 on-base percentage in six games before Tuesday, including a mammoth two-run home run Monday against Detroit.
The Braves haven’t tipped their hand, but they might try to sign Heyward to a long-term contract long before arbitration — to buy out his arbitration years and possibly a year or two of free agency.
They did that with catcher Brian McCann when they signed him to a six-year, $27.8 million a few springs ago. With Heyward, the deal would surely have to be much larger to lock him up for that long.