Heyward alters the tide with an impressive Spring Training
As the Braves prepare to conclude the exhibition season against Bobby Cox’s Future Stars at Triple-A Gwinnett’s Coolray Field tonight, it seems time to reminisce about what transpired over the past six weeks in Florida.
There was something very odd about this year’s Spring Training that went beyond Tommy Hanson’s one-car accident or the fact that Chipper Jones injured his left knee while jogging in the outfield less than two hours before he announced this will be the final season of his career.
The oddity of this year’s Spring Training was rooted in the tension that existed during the early days of camp and then grew as the club began the Grapefruit League season with just one win in its first 11 games. Sensing the same, one veteran player said, “If we don’t start winning some games, some people around here are going to going to get even tighter.”
As much as the Braves were attempting to separate themselves from last year’s conclusion, it was as if they were treating the early days of March like an extension of the most recent September.
The presence of seasoned veterans and an even-keeled Fredi Gonzalez prevented this tension from reaching a debilitating level.
But the re-emergence of Jason Heyward might have been the primary reason the final two weeks of the Grapefruit League season felt much different than the first two. Yes Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman provided encouragement and Mike Minor produced reason to be more confident about what he could offer this year.
But the most important development in Braves camp this year centered around the significant improvements Heyward displayed after working with the club’s new hitting coaches Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher.
When Heyward hit Stephen Strasburg’s 96-mph fastball over the right-center field wall and then doubled down the right field line on March 14, Walker gained the sense that the 22-year-old outfielder was starting to feel comfortable with the many adjustments that had been made.
“The kid is working,” Walker said the following morning. “He’s doing everything it takes to be good. We’ve got a long way to go and a long season. But what he did last night works for me. It looked like him. It was obvious he was getting to a better spot last night.”
When Heyward struck out twice in three at-bats that next day, he provided the reminder that he was still a work-in-progress. But when he drilled a first-inning grand slam the following night, he once again provided indication that he was progressing in the right direction.
After Heyward drilled Edwin Jackson’s fastball over the 35-foot center field wall at Space Coast Stadium and scaled Disney’s right field wall to rob Raul Ibanez of a homer last week, there was not any reason to look at his statistics (.227 batting average and four homers for those that care about Spring Training stats).
Those stats completely contradicted the young outfielder’s body language. With his shoulder healthy, he is once again having fun on the field. And quite honestly, it has once again been fun to watch him play.
When Heyward first revealed in November that he had lost 20 pounds, many fans wondered if he had really needed to do so. The simple answer remains, “no.” But courtesy of his strict diet and stringent conditioning program, he showed his dedication and gained a leaner frame that has allowed him to show his athleticism.
As Heyward displayed his impressive power in games and gracefully patrolled center field when asked to man that position over the past couple weeks, he rekindled those thoughts about his potential to enjoy a truly special career.
Count me among those who approached this year with some doubts about Heyward’s ability to match the expectations he created two years ago. But after watching him over the past couple weeks, I’d be a fool to doubt his capabilities.
OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD:
Some fans have understandably questioned whether Heyward could play center field if this is Michael Bourn’s last year in Atlanta. While there’s no doubt he could play the position, I think it would be in his body’s best interest to remain in right field.
The Braves enhanced their depth with Sunday’s acquisition of third baseman Juan Francisco, who is obviously much more talented than Drew Sutton or any of their other backup infielder options. Via this trade with the Reds, they also might have found Chipper Jones’ successor in the event that Joey Terdoslavich is not ready next year. But to gain a long-term future with the Braves, Francisco will have to lose the “lazy” and “unmotivated” tags he earned while playing for the Reds.
Once the decision was made, it was easy to understand why the Braves allowed Terdoslavich to skip the Double-A level and jump to Triple-A Gwinnett. There are few questions about his offensive potential. As for his task to prove he can handle the third base position, it will not prove any more difficult at the Triple-A level than it would have at the Double-A level.
But I do not see why the Braves would allow Andrelton Simmons the chance to also skip the Double-A level. Yes, there was a chance he was going to make the leap to the Majors. But much of that had to do with concerns about Tyler Pastornicky’s range at short. Now that the Braves have made the decision to start the season with Pastornicky, Simmons should be allowed to make a natural progression by first testing himself against Double-A pitching.
There is a good chance Simmons will be displaying his tremendous defensive skills as Atlanta’s shortstop at some point this year. But before he makes that leap, he should first spend a month or two against Double-A pitching. Two years ago when he was considered the best defensive shortstop available in the First-Year Player Draft, the Braves thought enough of his offensive skills to draft him as a pitcher.