The Situation: The Braves recently ended the suspense and told Jason Heyward(notes) that he's going to be their opening day right fielder. That means the stud 20-year-old will play a full season in Atlanta this year, barring injury or catastrophic ineptitude.
Injury isn't an entirely outlandish possibility, of course, as Heyward was scratched from the the Braves' spring training lineup on Sunday with shin splints. Teammate Jordan Schafer(notes) also provides recent proof that an opening day start isn't a sure springboard into rookie of the year contention as he was hurt by both injury and low production in '09.
But Heyward is a much better prospect than Schafer, already looks like a solid big leaguer and, after a headline-making spring, everyone will be watching to see if he can start his predicted stardom with a run at the NL Rookie of the Year award.
The Analysis: Heyward won his starting spot the same way he won each of his previous promotions — by hitting the hell out of the ball. Spring training stats are famously inconclusive because the sample sizes are so small, but he's among the league leaders in OBP, with an impressive .347/.467/.490 batting line in March. He has also continued turning scouts' heads while doing so: "He's not only been the best Brave this spring, he's been the best player this spring," one scout said to Jon Heyman.
Because his results and scouting reports are so uniformly positive, the biggest thing working against Heyward is his young age and that's because players at age 20 hardly ever succeed in the big leagues. In the past 109 seasons, there have been just 47 players that age or younger who have had a season of at least 500 plate appearances.
Of that group, there have been only five in the last 20 years: Elvis Andrus(notes), Adrian Beltre(notes), Edgar Renteria(notes), Alex Rodriguez(notes) and Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) It's an elite bunch, for sure, and the not-so-simple achievement of receiving that number of at-bats means that the hitter is likely destined for stardom. Of the 51 age 20 or younger seasons in history, only 16 produced a season of 120 OPS+ or better, which is more or less star-level. Nine of the responsible players are in the Hall of Fame and two more, Griffey and Rodriguez, will go in on the first ballot. If Heyward can stick in the majors all year, he'll be well on his way to a long, productive career.
But just sticking isn't the same as producing or earning an All-Star nod. And all the projection systems are united in cautioning not to expect too much. CHONE, Zips, Pecota and Bill James all predict an OPS between .740 and .836 with fewer than 20 homers. Part of that is because the projections weren't sure how much of the season Heyward would spend in the majors. But part of that is understandable caution. Justin Upton(notes), a comparable phenom in right field, who had similar numbers in the minor leagues at a similar age, put up an OPS of .769 in his first 569 PA in the majors at ages 19 and 20. Even Matt Wieters(notes) — who took batting practice on Sunday and wouldn't give it back — had a .753 OPS as a rookie last year.
It's understandable why pundits would want to throw cold water on the optimism. But I think they've let their caution get the better of them. Heyward has much better strike zone control than Upton. In his minor league career, Jason struck out in just 13.8 percent of his plate appearances and had 1.31 K/BB, while Upton struck out in 19.7 percent of his PA and had 1.76 K/BB. (Wieters had an impressive 1.04 K/BB, even better than Heyward, but he also struck out more than Heyward, in 15.3 percent of his PA.) Heyward walks a fair amount, as many power hitters do, but he also strikes out much less than most power hitters. His advanced knowledge of the strike zone will stand him in much better stead to succeed immediately — and that's just what all the scouts this spring have been saying.
The Forecast for 2010: I'm going to throw a bit of the earlier caution to the wind. I don't think that Heyward will hit 30 home runs this year, but I think he will exceed all of the predictions I mentioned earlier. I think he could well hit 20-25 homers with a .280-.300 average and a .850+ OPS. Everywhere he has played, he has been an incredibly tough out. I don't think that will change now that he's earned a full-time role with the big boys.
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Other 2010 questions answered by Alex Remington
• Does Derrek Lee have another great season left?
• Can Chad Billingsley return to last season's first-half form
• How long can Derek Jeter defy the effects of aging?
• Who will be the brightest offensive star in the O's universe?
• Can Pablo Sandoval improve on his impressive 2009?
• Will anyone hit 50 home runs in 2010?