I have tried to temper my excitement regarding prized Atlanta Braves prospect Jason Heyward.
Before he had ever swung at a big league pitch, some people, including Hank Aaron, had anointed him the "chosen one." I am always a little skeptical.
In the 1991 draft, the Yankees took left-handed high school phenom Brien Taylor. He was supposed to win multiple Cy Young awards and was a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Taylor was given a $1.55 million signing bonus. At the time, the second-highest bonus ever was nearly $1 million less.
Taylor fizzled in the minors, and an injury to his shoulder, which he incurred during a brawl, basically ended his career. He never even toed the rubber in Yankee Stadium.
How about Steve Chilcott in the 1966 draft? The Mets picked him over a guy named Reggie Jackson, who went second to the As, and Chilcott lasted six rough minor league seasons. He also never made it to the big leagues.
This list of hot prospects who did not pan out is a whole lot longer than the list of those who made it. So for that reason, I took a wait-and-see approach with Heyward. I knew he was bred to play the game. He was not some great athlete-turned-baseball player. His grandfather and father were both excellent baseball players in their day, and they instilled in Heyward a love for the game.
I also knew he had a stellar career at Henry County High School in McDonough, Ga., and had signed to play at UCLA before the Braves snapped him up with the 14th pick in the 2007 draft. I knew he had hit .323 with 11 homers, 15 stolen bases and 52 RBI in his first full season of pro ball with the Class A Rome Braves in just 120 games.
He was even better in 2009 when he was named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .323 with 25 doubles, 17 homers and 63 RBI between Class A Myrtle Beach and Class AAA Gwinnett. He also added 69 runs scored, 10 stolen bases, and an on-base percentage more than .400. By the way: He did all this in just 99 games.
Then came spring training, where he was getting more attention than future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. Heyward's mix of incredible power, raw athleticism and all-out style of play made him an instant hit with teammates and with veteran manager Bobby Cox. So rather than sending their 20-year-old stud to AAA for more grooming, the Braves made him their everyday rightfielder.
Through a fourth of the season, the gamble has certainly paid off. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound standout blasted a three-run home run in his first big league at-bat on opening day, and he has not slowed up very much since. For the season, Heyward is hitting .296 with a team-best nine homers and 35 RBI. He is fifth in the National League in RBI and ranks 10th in long balls. At this pace, he would finish the season with 36 home runs and 140 RBI.
Also, Heyward currently boasts an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .978. In the history of baseball only six men have had on OPS of .900 or better at 20 years old or younger -- Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson and Alex Rodriguez. The first five names are in the Hall of Fame, and A-Rod is just a formality.
Not bad for a kid who still can't legally buy a beer.
Now, I'm not saying Heyward is headed to the Hall of Fame, but he sure looks like a big-time star for years to come for Atlanta. So I am officially drinking the Jason Heyward Kool-Aid.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.