By Andrew Hirsh
As one of the most highly-touted players of his generation, Jason Heyward has grown accustomed to the spotlight.
What the 22-year-old isn’t used to, however, is the level of scrutiny he will surely face over the next seven months.
With an injury-plagued sophomore campaign in the rearview mirror, Heyward has spent this offseason and subsequent spring trying to repair his hitting mechanics and restore his self-confidence.
Such adjustments become necessary when a player hits .227/.319/.389 with 14 home runs over the course of a full season, especially when this particular young man was at one time the top prospect in the world.
If we were to take Heyward’s entire Spring Training stat line into consideration—one that is even worse than he put up during the 2011 regular season—it would appear that he remains far away from where the Braves need him to be.
But his production this week has strongly contrasted to how he performed in the beginning of March, perhaps signifying a turning point for the right fielder’s career.
“I’m getting comfortable again,” Heyward said Wednesday. “I started from scratch this offseason and I haven’t gotten too frustrated.”
Watching Heyward at the plate this past Wednesday and Thursday was reminiscent of what we saw from him not too long ago—back when his on-field production matched up with the hype, when the kid from Henry County was on track to become one of the best in baseball.
Heyward hit a home run in each of those games and made two spectacular catches in the field, one of which robbed Raul Ibanez of a HR of his own. The player that took the field on those nights was comparable the one we’ve envisioned No. 22 could become, the one we crave to see long into the future.
But those games offered nothing more than a glimpse of what Heyward is capable of, and as everyone knows, small previews like these mean very little, if nothing, over the course of time. Until Jason can develop the consistency necessary to be a top-tier player in the MLB, doubt from 2011 will continue to spill over.
This brings us to the truth of the matter: There will be no way to accurately gauge how well Heyward has rebounded from last year until a significant portion of the 2012 schedule has been played out. Once that time comes—as long as Heyward can remain healthy—the mystery that has surrounded him should subside in favor of a more concrete understanding of what we should expect from him moving forward.
All this being said, there’s no reason to believe that this season’s results will determine Heyward’s fate. Let us not forget that he’s still young enough to be in college and barely old enough to order a beer.
However, if Heyward fails to right the ship, his ongoing struggles could snowball into a prolonged slump that would be difficult to break. That would be the worst case scenario for him and the Braves this year. The best case scenario is that Heyward can avoid the injury bug and put up numbers similar—if not better—to those of his rookie year.
While it’s unsettling to have no real way of knowing what to expect from Heyward, it does make the game more exciting and adds an interesting subplot to the Braves in 2012.
All we can do now is sit back and wait for the next few months to play out.
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