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LEGEND BEFORE HIS TIME
TOM VERDUCCI
April 19, 2010
AT ONLY 20, JASON HEYWARD IS THE MOST INTIMIDATING SLUGGING PROSPECT IN YEARS. WHERE DID HE COME FROM? WELCOME TO THE NEW PLAYER-DEVELOPMENT PARADIGM
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April 19, 2010

Legend Before His Time

AT ONLY 20, JASON HEYWARD IS THE MOST INTIMIDATING SLUGGING PROSPECT IN YEARS. WHERE DID HE COME FROM? WELCOME TO THE NEW PLAYER-DEVELOPMENT PARADIGM

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At ages 15 and 16, his teams at East Cobb were 86--8 and 90--6, respectively, while traveling the country, usually playing against 18-year-olds and sometimes using wood bats. Baldwin says the fee to play on his team is $1,400, but a Braves official familiar with the program said costs can escalate to $10,000 per year. "Not true," says Baldwin. "I guess [it's possible] if you had two kids and the whole family went everywhere they went—I think that's what some people do—but not for one kid."

Goetz, who became a full-time scout for the Braves before leaving to work as an agent in July 2007, saw Heyward often at East Cobb. Each time his reports back to Atlanta were filled with more superlatives. By the fall of 2006, his senior year of high school, Heyward had grown into such a superb prospect that Goetz, knowing the Braves picked 14th in the 2007 draft, figured there was no way the team would get him. "He was so far ahead of his age in terms of intelligence, batting eye, strike zone discipline and work ethic," Goetz says. "I said, 'Heyward's got every tool you could possibly have.'"

That fall Goetz asked Baldwin if he could arrange a private workout for Heyward at East Cobb for the Braves' top player development officials, including then scouting director Roy Clark. Baldwin calls what happened next "one of the most amazing things I ever saw." With a wood bat, Heyward hit 25 balls over a huge scoreboard in rightfield. He hit another 10 over the towering batter's eye screen in dead centerfield. "We had all the Braves' hierarchy out here," Baldwin says, "and their jaws just dropped. They were saying, 'Is this kid for real?' I said, 'Yeah, he pretty much is.'"

The Braves rated Heyward the best draft-eligible player in the country, ahead of more highly publicized prospects such as Vanderbilt pitcher David Price and high school third baseman Josh Vitters. Somehow, no other club rated Heyward that highly. How could that be? Baldwin smiled wryly when asked that question, paused a moment or two and finally said, "Ummm, what can I say and what can't I? ... Years from now I'll tell you."

The Braves have a cozy relationship with their backyard friends at East Cobb. Since 2000 they have drafted 18 players out of the program. They donate equipment to the organization through their foundation. Braves president and former general manager John Schuerholz sent his son, Jonathan, to play at East Cobb. Atlanta's scouts regularly attend tournaments and workouts there.

"We started really concentrating on East Cobb about 10 years ago," Schuerholz says. "We said, 'This is one of the top amateur programs in the country. Let's make sure we're at the forefront of culling talent out of our own backyard.' We were able to do that for a few years. And all things being equal, we may take the East Cobb player over another player if only because we see them so much and know them so well."

Eugene Heyward believes he knows why other teams were not as high on his son as the Braves: Baldwin and the team quietly downplayed his ability and visibility. They sandbagged the competition. "Roy Clark was a very shrewd man," Eugene says. "They wouldn't update his size information. I believe Jason went to a [showcase event] and was listed at 6'1", 198. Jason was 6'1", 198 maybe two months in his life. The Braves did an excellent job. They lowballed his size.

"Guerry played a part in that. He'd say, 'If you go hit for the Marlins, they're going to pick you.' Guerry is a Braves man. He and Clark and those guys, they did a number."

Says one general manager who passed on drafting Heyward, "The Braves have a history of doing that. [Georgia native Adam] Wainwright's medicals were bad—until it was their turn to pick. They did it with Francoeur and McCann. It's good baseball. They're good at it. You can go ask anybody in baseball and nobody had [Heyward] above Price and Vitters and those guys. He was not in the top five group."

But didn't other teams watch him play? Yes, but in his high school season before the draft, Heyward rarely saw pitches to hit. "I told Jason, 'You have to take your walks,'" Baldwin says. "'You can't change who you are. If scouts aren't smart enough to see that, tough. That's their fault.' He was smart enough not to fall into that trap. Most think, All these people are here to see me hit. They don't want to see me walk."

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