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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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Says Goetz, "He wouldn't hit on the field before a game. He usually hit in the cage. Most teams in that [high school] league were not going to pitch to him. So big league teams would send their scouting directors to see him, and he'd hit in the cage, walk three times and ground out in the game, and they'd walk away with a lot of questions."

What about all those games with East Cobb? Heyward didn't play the summer after his senior season, and even if he did, because the draft is held in the first week of June, scouts would have seen him only for a glimpse. And the previous summers? Goetz says that at the time many organizations re-assigned their area scouts after the high school baseball season to pro coverage. Given how many prospects, because of the rise in travel baseball, play their most competitive baseball in the summer and not in high school leagues, major league clubs were operating on a broken model.

On the day of the draft, about 20 Braves executives gathered in a room at Turner Field. They wanted Heyward badly, but 13 teams would pick ahead of them. They were especially concerned about the Marlins, who held the 12th pick and had a scout, Brian Bridges, who had watched Heyward often. "When you talked to [Heyward]," Goetz says, "you didn't know if you were talking to a high school kid, a college senior or a 30-year-old. He was intelligent beyond his years, and the tools were there. And we knew he was going to work harder than anybody. The bottom line is we saw him more than anybody, and the more you saw him, the more you liked him."

The Rays, picking first, took Price. The next three teams, the Royals, Cubs and Pirates, took three players who have yet to play in the big leagues (shortstop Mike Moustakas, Vitters and pitcher Daniel Moskos, respectively). The next four choices were college players: catcher Matt Wieters to the Orioles, pitcher Ross Detwiler to the Nationals, first baseman Matt LaPorta to the Brewers and pitcher Casey Weathers to the Rockies.

Five more picks before it was the Braves' turn. The next three were high school pitchers: Jarrod Parker to the Diamondbacks, Madison Bumgarner to the Giants and Phillippe Aumont to the Mariners. The Marlins were up next. Braves officials grew anxious—but Florida took Matt Dominguez, a high school third baseman. (Dominguez has hit .260 in the minors, with only 34 games played above Class A.) The people in the Braves' draft room shouted and high-fived. "If we could have, most of us would have been drinking," Goetz said.

Heyward, at home in McDonough, was in disbelief that he could end up with his hometown team. "I really couldn't even describe the feeling," he says. "Once it happens, you really don't know what to say. People ask me, 'How did you fall to 14?' I say, 'I couldn't tell you.' I'm very thankful that it happened."

There was still one more team to pick before Atlanta: Cleveland. The Braves weren't too worried about the Indians because they had not seen much of the Cleveland scouts around Heyward. "We just didn't see him swing the bat enough to feel comfortable taking him that high," says one Indians official. "When we saw him, he walked a lot."

The Indians took Beau Mills, a college corner infielder and son of current Astros manager Brad Mills. Atlanta's subterfuge campaign had worked. The Braves took Heyward and signed him two months later to a $1.7 million bonus, only slightly more than the unofficial "slotting" value for his draft position. The Braves sent him to their Gulf Coast rookie league team in Orlando, where he recognized the team's second round pick, Freddie Freeman, a first baseman. The two had met earlier that year at a high school All-Star game in San Diego. Heyward had reached first base, when suddenly he noticed dirt being thrown on his shoes. He looked up and saw Freeman smiling.

Heyward, the kid from Georgia, and Freeman, the kid from Orange County, Calif., became best friends. They roomed together in Orlando and remained roommates at three other minor league stops (Class A Rome, High A Myrtle Beach and Double A Mississippi). They lived together again during major league training camp this year. Every morning at 6:30 they would be first in the clubhouse, where they lockered next to each other, numbers 70 and 71. Only when Cox told Heyward, a .318 hitter in the minors, that he made the team were they separated. (Freeman, a .293 hitter, began the season at Triple A and could be in Atlanta late this season or next.)

Asked to give a scouting report on his buddy, Freeman replied, "Menacing. When he goes up to bat, everybody gets quiet. It's fun to watch him play the game because he plays it the right way. Always hustling. Always doing what he needs to do."

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