Heyward poised to build off career season
FEB 28, 2013 12:22p ET
Let that sink in just for a second … Heyward, who at 23 is still one of the youngest players on the roster, will be the old man based on experience when Atlanta takes Turner Field on April 1 against the Phillies.
“I’ve been around for a while now,” Heyward said. “I’m just having fun and not taking it for granted.”
Atlanta added more star-power to its outfield during the offseason and it was on display in the clubhouse as a group of reporters huddled around the side-by-side lockers of B.J. and Justin Upton.
The questions centered around their upbringing in Virginia and their finally playing together after B.J. signed the richest free-agent contract in franchise history ($72.25 million over five years) and the Braves traded the Diamondbacks for Justin.
Heyward dressed on the opposite side of the locker room, sitting on a stool as he pulled on his cleats. It was hard not to get the sense that with all of the attention that’s being heaped on the Braves’ new outfielders, Heyward has, at times, become the forgotten man.
The numbers speak loud and clear.
Heyward is coming off a season in which he set career highs in home runs (27), RBI (82), stolen bases (21) and slugging (.479) as well as games played (158). Oh, and for his work in right field, which included 20 defensive runs saved — a total that was sixth in the majors and second among all at the position — and a UZR/150 of 22.1 (second in MLB), he won his first Gold Glove, something his new outfield mates can’t match.
“The year he had last year, I’ll take that for the next 10,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “But there’s a lot there left that he can do.”
Like taking on a leadership role on a team that’s looking for players to step up after the retirement of Chipper Jones.
“I feel like (I’m) just gradually working my way into being one of the longest-tenured guys on this team and just leading by example with certain things,” Heyward said. “Being on the field is the biggest thing and leading by example is the best way to do it.”
He’s not, as Gonzalez says “one of those guys who takes his shirt off, stands on a table and yells and screams at people.” Heyward’s is a quiet and focused brand of leadership, which was helped along by his spending a season and a half with ex-Braves center fielder Michael Bourn.
Gonzalez can remember passing by Bourn — who has since signed with the Indians — and Heyward at their lockers and there was no talk about cars, watches, houses or the trappings of a major-league salary. It was all about the game, all the time.
“Michael was a big influence, I thought,” Gonzalez said. “Michael was a professional. … They (would be) talking about baseball and they’re talking about how they’re winning that night’s game.”
Said Heyward: “It made a great impression. Guy came to the field every day happy, the same person out there and loved the game of baseball, didn’t take it for granted.”
For all of the strides he made last season, there are still concerns with Heyward. He’s had troubles against left-handed pitchers, against whom he hit .224 last season and .226 over his career and a strikeout rate that stood at 23.3 percent in ’12 after his K’s jumped from 92 to in ’11 to 152.
But those are issues that time and plate appearances can fix and Heyward wasted little time in refocusing himself after last season.
He took just 2 1/2 weeks off and slimmed down to around 230, focusing on strength and flexibility training, which he says was “all geared toward getting ready for a baseball game.”
Averaging out the projections by Baseball Prospectus and The Bill James Handbook, Heyward is expected to produce 23 HRs, 82 RBI, 21 steals and a slash line of .270/.353/.464, though both publications calculated their ’13 stats before the Braves acquired the younger Upton on Jan. 24.
Slated to hit second in the lineup with Andrelton Simmons at leadoff and Justin Upton at third, Heyward will have the kind of power behind him where teams can’t pitch around him.
A Braves player hasn’t finished a season with 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 22 years, dating back to when Ron Gant completed back-to-back 30/30 seasons in 1990 and ’91 and the Braves now have three players with the mix of power and speed to join that club.
The focus this spring has largely been on two of them, the 91st set of brothers on the same team and the first for the Braves since Mickey and Rick Mahler in 1979. The Uptons are generating plenty of buzz, but Heyward looks poised to build on a career, that at just 23, has already afforded him veteran status.
“I think Jason, he knows what he wants,” Gonzalez said. “He knows what he wants to do and he wants to play this game for a long time and be successful. You can really see him, from 2011, 2012 to this spring training, the maturity.”
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