Last winter and at spring training, Braves general manager Frank Wren was asked if he’d try to sign Jason Heyward to a long-term contract, as Tampa Bay did with Evan Longoria early in his rookie season and Milwaukee did with Ryan Braun after his rookie year.
Last week, Wren was asked about a rumor that the Braves might consider trading Heyward after a disappointing, injury-plagued second season.
“We’ve never had one discussion about trading Jason Heyward,” he scoffed. “That’s the furthest thing from our mind. That’s never come up. Nobody’s contemplated it.”
The mere fact that there was even mention of the possibility – rumored or otherwise – says something of how bad a season Heyward had, and how perception of the 22-year-old has already changed in some quarters.
Few people in baseball will be shocked if Heyward bounces back from an alarming second season – .227 average, .319 on-base percentage, 34 extra-base hits, 42 RBIs – with a performance in 2012 that more closely resembles his ‘10 season — .277/.393/52/72 — when he was The Sporting News’ major league rookie of the year.
But at the same time, there are plenty who question whether Heyward has all that it takes, including physical and mental toughness, to become a consistent, elite player year after year in the 162-game grind of major league baseball.
Moments after quashing the trade rumor, Wren said this about Heyward in 2012: “The reality is Jason made some progress this season; he’s got to continue to make progress. And he’s going to be in a battle unless he continues to progress at a good rate.”
Almost as if to underscore what he’d just said to a few reporters still processing that information, Wren continued: “He’s going to be in a battle for a position. It’s not a given he’s our right fielder. We’re going to go into the offseason planning with it in mind that we’ve got to have offensive production from right field. And we didn’t get that.”
Heyward was slowed by thumb-ligament injury that diminished his power for part of his rookie season (he still hit for high average and OBP in that period), and then slowed by a shoulder injury early in the 2011 season that eventually landed him on the disabled list.
It was during Heyward’s DL stint in June when veteran third baseman Chipper Jones commented publicly that Heyward might need to learn to play while hurt, because he could still contribute plenty and teammates regularly played through various aches.
Heyward was back in the lineup less than a week after Jones’ comments. He hit .234 with seven homers, 28 RBIs and a .321 OBP in 83 games after returning from the DL on June 15, including a two-week period in August when he played sparingly. Hot-hitting Jose Constanza was in the regular lineup then, while Heyward did extra work in the batting cage.
After returning to the regular lineup Aug. 19, Heyward hit .253 with two homers in his last 33 games, though he did show better plate discipline and had a .340 OBP in that period – far below his rookie standard, but better than what he’d posted for most of 2011.
Last week, a day after the Braves’ season ended, manager Fredi Gonzalez was asked if Heyward’s season could just be written off as a “sophomore slump.”
“No, I don’t think you write it off,” Gonzalez said. “There’s stuff that we tried during the year to try to fix him and get him better. But he’s too good of a baseball player, too good of a hitter to just write it off as sophomore jinx or whatever.
“He’s only 22. It’s not like he’s over-the-hill and he’s never going to get it fixed. This guy is still young. He’s just a puppy…. I think this is going to be a big offseason for him, to hopefully sell out [accept everything the Braves are suggesting] and make the changes we want him to make and that he wants to make, and come back better.”
Was Wren serving notice that Heyward really would be competing for a job in spring training — Wren said offseason priorities are shortstop and outfield — or just lighting a fire beneath him to make sure Heyward does all he needs to do this winter?
“Some people are like, Jason needs to forget about this season,” said Heyward’ agent, Victor Menocal. “I had a great talk with Jason and he doesn’t want to forget about it, he wants to learn. It was good for him as far as his growth and what he wants to do to have a successful career. Getting to know his body better, what he needs to work on.”
Heyward said late in the same that he wasn’t back to feeling comfortable hitting, not the way he felt as a rookie, but that he was headed in the right direction. He said he’d take the season as a learning experience.
“I mean, that’s what it is,” he said. “Every day, whether you have a good game or an off game, or good season or not-so-good season.”
When Wren was asked if the Braves might suggest that Heyward play winter ball, the GM said he’d reserve comment for now.
In the final week of the season, Heyward was asked about his offseason plans.
“First, heal,” he said. “Figure out if there’s anything else I can do to get healthy. Then just go to work. I feel like I’ll most definitely put more time in in the cage. Not that I ever slacked off at any point, it’s just that when you have injuries and get away from your confidence level, you’ve got to work twice as hard to get it back. So most definitely do that.
“Other than that, working out and staying in shape has never been a problem. I’ve always had a good work ethic. But as far as the cage goes, just get after it, take my time and pay a lot of attention to detail.”
Heal? Did that mean something still felt wrong with the shoulder?
“I don’t know if it’s back-related, neck-related or whatever,” Heyward said. “I just feel like, get to the bottom of whatever it is. I mean, because I don’t feel like it’s better, as far as 100 percent. It still nags me. I just want to get to the root of the problem. Just take the time, because it’s my career and I owe it to myself to most definitely get that checked. I just want to know, is there anything I can do to feel better?”
“Like I said, naturally heal up and then put some work in. I enjoy it. I’ve always enjoyed practice; I’ve always enjoyed working on something, whether things are going well or not for me. So that’s going to be nothing new. It’s going to be a fun challenge.”
Menocal said Heyward would be examined early this winter, but didn’t elaborate. He said Heyward would do exercises to strengthen the shoulder that gave him trouble.
When Wren was asked last week if the Braves would have Heyward examined this winter, he said, “There are no health issues.”
Wren’s comments regarding Heyward’s status for 2012 were heretofore unheard of in Braves circles, at least publicly. Ever since he made former manager Bobby Cox’s opening-day lineup as a 20-year-old in 2010 – and hit a tape-measure homer in his first at-bat – the consensus was that the “J-Hey Kid” would become a franchise institution, a superstar to inherit the Golden Boy label from Chipper Jones.
Even last spring and early in the season, new manager Gonzalez made it clear Heyward was a full-time starter who’d face right-handed and left-handed pitchers, not any sort of platoon player. That was, of course, before Heyward struggled mightily against lefties this season and eventually had a seat on the bench when facing some lefties, and then when facing some righties, too.
He hitt .192 with a .270 OBP against lefties this season, compared to .249 with a .356 OBP in 2010. Heyward also hit .218 with runners in scoring position this season, after ranking second among Braves regulars with a .306 average in 2010.
“He’s a young guy with a lot of potential,” Wren said last week. “And at the major league level, managers and general managers will tell you, potential is great, but we need production. That’s kind of where we are. We have to see production.”