As his big-league team played itself back into the playoff chase, Frank Wren devoted last week to future-gazing. He spent four days in Pearl, Miss., and Huntsville, Ala., watching the Braves’ Class AA affiliate. He stayed at what’s known as the Space Marriott in Huntsville, the one with rockets visible out the window. He saw at least one player whose career has assumed a similar trajectory.
Wren saw Jason Heyward turn 20. He also saw him do all the things the glowing daily reports suggest he has been doing. Not long ago Baseball America named Heyward, an outfielder two years removed from Henry County High, the minor leagues’ top prospect, and even in the attempt to understate Wren made a powerful concession. Said the general manager: “He’s a good-looking young player.”
Heyward has played 32 games for Mississippi since being promoted from Class A Myrtle Beach. He’s hitting .405 with six home runs and 24 RBIs. His on-base percentage is .485. His slugging percentage is .730. He has walked more times (17) than he has struck out (12). Said Wren: “He progressed at Myrtle Beach, and he has handled AA even better than we thought he would. That’s fair to say.”
Obvious question: When do the Braves expect Heyward in Atlanta? Obvious GM’s non-answer: Too soon to tell. “We really don’t have a timetable,” Wren said. “That’s one the traps you fall in with young players — setting a timetable. Sometimes the timetable gets pushed up.”
Could Heyward’s development accommodate a September call-up? “We haven’t even really discussed that. Those are some of the most difficult decisions you have to make: When you consider all factors, when is the right time? Is there a comfort level — is he ready to handle it physically and mentally?”
OK, the physical part: Heyward has been likened to Darryl Strawberry (link requires registration) by Mississippi manager Phillip Wellman in conversation with ESPN.com and to Willie McCovey and Dave Parker by MLB.com. Said Wren: “I’ve heard a lot of descriptions. Jason does a lot of things on the baseball field. He has an above-average arm; he has power and speed; he can play all three outfield positions. And for a 20-year-old kid he has a pretty advanced understanding of the strike zone.”
If you’re waiting for Wren to say Heyward is a lock for Cooperstown come the year 2030, wait on. No GM is going to saddle any 20-year-old with that baggage. But what he says about Heyward and his Mississippi teammate Freddie Freeman, the 19-year-old first baseman, is fairly revealing.
“We’re very fortunate to have both of them. You don’t see many 19- or 20-year-olds who are so talented … We’re always projecting three or four years into the future, what our needs will be, and it’s no secret Chipper’s getting older [Jones is 37]. We’re going to have to transition to a new nucleus, and Jason and Freddie and Jordan Schafer are a part of that.”
The guess — and it’s just a guess, for Wren will concede nothing — has been that the Braves want Heyward (and Freeman, too) to start 2010 in Class AAA, the same as Tommy Hanson did this spring. And it also seems clear that, in trading away right fielder Jeff Francoeur and first baseman Casey Kotchman, the Braves have made big-league space for the hot prospects. “It’s not like we were trying to clear a spot for them,” Wren said, but it sure seemed that way.
And here’s one final, albeit subtle, indicator. Asked what he took from his Southern sojourn, Wren thought for a moment and said: “I don’t think I saw anything I didn’t expect to see.”
We can assume he didn’t go in search of the next Greg Norton.