Let’s hear it for the cheapskate Braves, and let’s, in honor of the occasion, remove the adjective. Down the road, it would have made monetary sense to park Jason Heyward in Gwinnett for two weeks. But dollars and cents would have been the only reason for not having Heyward in right field at Turner Field on Opening Day, and credit the Braves for grasping that they weren’t reason enough.
There have been other stories in Lake Buena Vista this spring, but there was only one real story: Jason Heyward. Guy shows up and goes demolition derby on the cars parked behind the right-field fence. Guy gets a hit almost every time out. Guy gives all of us marooned here in Atlanta cause to say, “I’ve got to see this guy.”
Indeed, that’s pretty much what Frank Wren said to an inquiring correspondent last August, when Heyward was tearing up the minors. The correspondent noted that the Mississippi Braves were due to come through Chattanooga soon and wondered if Heyward was worth driving 110 miles to observe. “Mark,” Wren said, “you need to see this guy.”
And now he’ll be here April 5. (Game’s at 4:10 p.m. Tickets still available. Hint, hint.)
Earlier this month Bryan Smith of FanGraphs made a strong case as to why the Braves shouldn’t let Heyward start this season in the majors. The crux of his argument was the crux of every argument in 21st Century baseball: Money.
A player is eligible for free agency after six full big-league seasons. A full big-league season constitutes 172 service days. If the Braves would have stashed Heyward in Gwinnett until, say, April 17, he’d have finished 2010 with 170 big-league service days. (Assuming he didn’t pull a Jordan Schafer and get demoted.) He would not be eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season.
Wrote Smith: “There is simply no argument to be made that the marginal value gained by playing Jason Heyward over Matt Diaz for three weeks in April is worth losing Heyward’s rights for the 2016 season.”
That’s a logical and reasoned conclusion. It’s also bloodless. It doesn’t take into account the anticipation building here in the A-T-L for the guy from McDonough, and somehow saying, “Don’t worry — you’ll get your first glimpse of Jason Heyward in a real big-league game against the Rockies on Saturday night, April 17th,” doesn’t have the oomph of this:
“Starting in right field on Opening Day, Jason Heyward!”
The Braves have had big prospects before. Andruw Jones was twice the minor league player of the year, but he arrived in the middle of a season and joined a team coming off a World Series title. Chipper Jones was a big deal, but he likewise joined a team grown accustomed to winning. Jeff Francoeur was the hometown hero, the Golden Child, but he arrived in midyear to bolster a team working on its 14th consecutive division title. Heyward is different.
He could be the man — technically he’s only 20, but that’s close enough — who leads the Braves up from mediocrity. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2005, and they’re coming off an offseason in which their maneuvers did not, shall we say, meet with unanimous approval. Put simply, Braves fans need a jolt. And here he comes:
Joltin’ Jason, the J-Hey Kid.
As Bobby Cox told esteemed colleague Carroll Rogers: “I would have had to have been blind to not see what he showed.”
Yes, and the Braves would have had to have been tone-deaf not to acknowledge the yearning emanating from their fans. Jason Heyward is the most eagerly awaited Brave since … who, Chipper? Bob Horner? Dale Murphy? (I won’t mention Brad Komminsk if you won’t.) To have sent him to the minors for the sake of saving a few service days would have made business sense, but nobody buys a ticket to watch an accountant balance the ledger.
Forget 2016. In the year 2010, the Atlanta Braves needed to give us a reason to snap to attention on Day 1. And they just did.