In Atlanta, Jason Heyward is the new face of the future
Heyward has been compared to Dave Parker, Willie McCovey and Fred McGriff
The Braves' prospect is Baseball America's 2009 Minor League Player of the Year
He was not a September callup this year, to the dismay of some Atlanta fans
The parallels between players are impossible to miss, yet it doesn't take long for Braves officials to try and distance Jason Heyward from former Atlanta phenom Jeff Francoeur.
Braves general manager Frank Wren and farm director Kurt Kemp are comfortable with the suggestion that Heyward, who just turned 20, is on track to one day be the face of the franchise, or at least join catcher Brian McCann in sharing the role as the career of Chipper Jones winds down in Atlanta.
They just don't want to say that Heyward is following in Francoeur's footsteps -- even if Francoeur blazed this very path four short years ago -- lest there be some insinuation that he might follow that trail all the way off an ugly ledge like the one that came earlier this summer. That's when Francoeur, in desperate need of new scenery, was traded to the New York Mets.
So they speak in a respectful yet hesitant way, mindful that there is only so much they can do to manage perceptions. It's natural for people to wonder if Francoeur left behind a cautionary tale, which the Braves used to create a new template that they're applying to Heyward.
"The answer to that, I would say, is no," Kemp said. "I can't give you an example of something we would do differently. I think we have to fairly give Jason Heyward a chance to be Jason Heyward. I think he is his own person, with his own personal makeup ... with the similarity that they're both hometown guys."
Heyward did not receive a September call-up when rosters expanded, even though he may appear as ready as Francoeur was when he moved up in the middle of 2005. All Francoeur did was finish runner-up in voting for National League Rookie of the Year in half a season. That was Francoeur's third full professional season, however, while this is Heyward's second.
And unlike Francoeur, who struggled in his first exposure to Double-A in 2004, Heyward has thrived. In fact, he improved after moving up from high Class A Myrtle Beach to Double-A Mississippi, batting .336/.434/.605 with seven home runs there after batting .296/.369/.519 with 10 homers for the Pelicans.
Taken together -- his .314/.399/.557 overall performance in his second full season, plus his ascension into the role of future franchise cornerstone -- Heyward was an easy choice as Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year, a singular distinction for a singular talent.
The comparisons are natural enough. Both players were hometown phenoms coming out of high school (Francoeur from Parkview High in the northern suburb of Lilburn, Heyward from Henry County High in McDonough, south of Atlanta). Both were drafted in the first round, both play right field and have cannon arms, and both have been beyond precocious as minor leaguers.
"I'm not sure that we can dictate or legislate [perceptions]," Wren said. "I think that's going to happen on its own. We can try to prepare Jason Heyward for what's coming. I think one of the things that we have going for us is Jason is a very level-headed kid. I think he's able to handle just about anything.
"That's not to infer that Jeff wasn't. I just don't know that we can manage it to the degree that we would like."
What it boils down to is staying power, and developing more of it. When you produce as Heyward has, even as Francoeur still can, the debate about skills seems moot.
Heyward has lightning-quick bat speed, his defense and arm strength are above-average, he runs well, and at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds he could still grow more. He's been compared to Dave Parker, Willie McCovey, Fred McGriff and ... you get the drift.
Yet many more players have the skills to make it to the majors than have the gray matter to excel over time once there, to hold the pieces together through the swoons that are inevitable parts of the game.
On these topics, Wren, Kemp and Mississippi manager Phillip Wellman are happy to opine about Heyward. He'll get your attention with his numbers (he had hit into one double play in 182 Double-A plate appearances, and a mere 10 in 977 career minor league plate appearances). The panting commences, however, on the topic of Heyward's intangibles.
"One of the measures you have is how do they handle the failures that are part of this game because it's going to happen to everybody," Kemp said. "The physical game -- playing every single night, being able to manage your body with rest, the way you eat, your conditioning.
"It's a different sport than, say, football where you pump it up once a week and then come back down and practice six days. How do you handle failure, keep it on an emotional even keel? We all know he has outstanding physical ability, but all of the other things along with it, his mental makeup, his approach, his work ethic, those peripheral things that go into his makeup are Jason's and Jason's alone."
Heyward's ability to keep himself in the moment rather than rush himself impresses many. While he is uncommonly diligent in preparation, right down to his offseason strength and hitting coaches, he takes a simple overall approach: pressure be damned.
"Mentally, for one you've got to always understand it's just a game," Heyward said. "The struggles you have, it's an opportunity to learn, make an adjustment. You take it as it comes at you. I trust my swing, my abilities, my hands. The mindset going in, the way you get more comfortable, is knowing you're going to get another opportunity."