Heyward’s absence will test the Braves’ perseverence
As troubling as it might be to wonder how the Braves will perform in Jason Heyward’s absence, this is certainly not the first time the club has been forced to overcome the extended absence of a key figure.
If you forgot Brian McCann missed this season’s first five weeks recovering from shoulder surgery, it is probably because Evan Gattis spent this span performing more like a five-time Silver Slugger award winner than a rookie getting his first taste of the big leagues. The Braves went 18-12 during this stretch, which included Heyward’s absence after he underwent an emergency appendectomy on April
Then of course you had the gruesome season-ending injury Tim Hudson suffered last month. Instead of waiting for the sky to fall upon them, the Braves have won 20 of 25 since then and seen their rotation compile a 3.11 ERA — the National League’s third-best mark during this span.
Depth and perseverance have enabled the Braves to overcome adversity and compile the game’s best record through this season’s first 126 games. But this year’s greatest challenge could come as they attempt to spend the remainder of the season without knowing exactly what to expect from Heyward.
The Braves know Heyward will be sidelined at least a month while recovering from the broken jaw he suffered when he was hit on the right side of his face with Jon Niese’s 90-mph fastball on Wednesday afternoon. Realistically, Heyward will be out closer to six weeks, which would account for the remainder of the regular season.
So while there is hope Heyward could be cleared just before the end of the regular season, there is certainly no reason to know what to expect from him when he returns. This unfortunate incident is one that requires both physical and mental healing.
When Heyward returned from his appendectomy earlier this year, it took him a couple weeks to get his timing back and find the rhythm that has enabled him to hit .301 with a .881 OPS in the 62 games he has played dating back to June 2. Now along with regaining timing and the rhythm of his swing, Heyward will be forced to find comfort stepping back in that batter’s box after experiencing this scare.
If all goes well, Heyward could compile some at-bats in the Instructional League and possibly simulated games thrown by Atlanta’s pitchers who might need some work in late September. But it will likely take more than just a couple weeks of seeing living pitcher for him to regain most of his confidence.
Even if Heyward is not able to provide desired production at the plate upon his return, he could continue to be an asset with his Gold Glove-caliber defense. But somebody will need to step up and compensate for the offensive production Heyward provided while hitting .345 with a .418 on-base percentage in the 23 games he played after moving to the leadoff role on July 27.
Jordan Schafer will likely have an opportunity to man the leadoff spot over the course of the next month. But Schafer has gone 3-for-22 and compiled a .240 on-base percentage in the 25 plate appearance he has recorded since returning from a month-long stint on the disabled list earlier this month. Regular playing time could help him get out of this funk or simply prove he has been brought back to reality since hitting .312 with a .399 on-base percentage in the 61 games he played before being disabled with a stress fracture in his foot.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez has spent the past two weeks platooning Schafer with B.J. Upton. The timing of this decision prevented Upton from building on the success he had when he recorded 10 hits in his first 21 at-bats after ending a three-week stint on the disabled list earlier this month.
In my opinion, this was the time when the Braves needed to give Upton a “fresh start” and allow him to gain a sense that they were still confident he could be the player they envisioned when he signed a franchise record five-year, $75.25 million contract in November. But the veteran center fielder has simply weakened this argument while going hitless in his past 24 at-bats and dropping his batting average to .183.
Still to keep the outfield defense strong and provide Upton a chance to get going, it might be wise for Gonzalez to attempt to use Upton and Schafer in the same lineup over the next couple of weeks. Either would obviously be a significant upgrade in comparison to using either Gattis or Joey Terdoslavich in left field on a daily basis.
While Upton has struggled throughout this season, optimists have said he’ll get going like he did when he hit .249 with 19 home runs and a .864 OPS in last season’s final two months.
Well there is no time like the present for Upton to suddenly come to life and produce yet another torrid stretch that could allow the Braves to compensate for Heyward’s significant absence.