Stealth scouting helped Braves land Heyward

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Al Goetz needed to make the rest of the baseball world think the Atlanta Braves wanted nothing to do with Jason Heyward(notes). So he did what any reasonable scout would. Goetz turned into a stalker.

Past the outfield fence at Henry County High School stands a small forest, and as all the other scouts passing through suburban Atlanta sneaked peeks at Heyward from behind home plate, Goetz settled in the thicket. Scouting success often necessitates subterfuge, and in order to watch Heyward without giving away the Braves’ desire to draft him, Goetz played woodsman.

“We decided we were going to make people think we were off him,” he said. “We didn’t want to give away how we felt about him.”

Braves outfielder Jason Heyward hits against the Marlins during spring training.
(Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Which was effusive, vociferous, absolutely, positively, without-a-doubt certain, and probably a little stalkerish. For more than half a decade, Goetz had followed Heyward’s exploits. They met when Goetz’s son, Justin, writhed in pain after getting hit by a pitch from Heyward when the boys were 10. From there, Goetz memorized every intricacy of Heyward’s gorgeous left-handed swing, charmed his parents and, yeah, spied on him from afar.

What he saw then everyone else now can witness. Heyward, 20, will start in right field for the Braves on opening day as perhaps the most hyped position player in a decade, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound leviathan whose spring-training showcase forced Atlanta to summon him. Heyward’s propensity to destroy car windows and mirrors with 450-foot batting-practice home runs helped cultivate his legend – and force rental-car companies to consider offering HLI (Heyward Liability Insurance). The insistence of Braves veterans that Heyward break camp with the big club cemented his place among the most intriguing players of 2010.

“I love to put him in the lineup,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said. “I’ve been playing him so much, but when I don’t have him in there, it’s like I miss him some. I’m not kidding.”

The unanimity with which the Braves praise Heyward staggers even Goetz, who drafted and signed Brian McCann(notes) and Jeff Francoeur(notes) but looks fondest upon Heyward because of the time – and effort – spent landing him. This wasn’t a typical scout-and-select signing. The Braves were blessed with a confluence of good fortune and savvy to ensure he fell to the 14th pick in the 2007 draft.

By his junior year, Heyward was playing with the East Cobb Astros, a traveling team that has turned into a reliable major league pipeline. East Cobb founder Guerry Baldwin generally doesn’t allow his players to attend the summer showcase events where scouting directors and national crosscheckers gather to see the country’s top high school talent, a stance that especially pinches major league teams with skinflint scouting budgets. The thinnest departments assign amateur scouts pro duty between the early-June amateur draft and the July 31 trade deadline – the time during which East Cobb plays the majority of its tournaments.

When scouts zeroed in on Heyward during his senior season at Henry County, they watched him spit at the offerings of inferior pitching. It wasn’t so much that teams pitched around him – two scouts who saw Heyward as a senior said they got enough of a look to grade him – but that he showed an uncanny eye, even as a 17-year-old.

While the Braves were cuckoo for Heyward, others found flaws. The Major League Scouting Bureau’s report called Heyward a “physical specimen” but said he projected as a left fielder or first baseman. Teams blanched at potential signing-bonus demands, which could have been a ruse to drop Heyward to the Braves.

Atlanta worried about one team in particular: Florida, which assigned scout Brian Bridges to Heyward for much of the spring and picked 12th. Tampa Bay chose David Price(notes), the undisputed top talent, with the first selection. Then came a run of questionable picks: Mike Moustakas(notes) and Josh Vitters(notes), a pair of third basemen who still haven’t cracked Double A, and Daniel Moskos, now best known as the bust Pittsburgh chose instead of Matt Wieters(notes).

“I was shocked at the beginning that he didn’t go top 5,” said Eugene Heyward, Jason’s father.

After Wieters came Ross Detweiler and Matt LaPorta(notes), both of whom have appeared in the major leagues, and reliever Casey Weathers and starter Jarrod Parker(notes), who haven’t. San Francisco chose Madison Bumgarner(notes) and Seattle took Phillippe Aumont(notes), the top prospect dealt in the Cliff Lee(notes) trade. Then came Florida.

“Leading up to that, it was the longest 15 minutes anybody’s ever gone through,” Goetz said. “When the Marlins passed on him, it’s the most excited I’ve ever seen a draft room. Guys were high fiving each other.”

Florida selected third baseman Matt Dominguez(notes), Cleveland picked infielder Beau Mills and the Braves’ years-long pursuit of Heyward was complete. They invited him to Turner Field that night. The team was so excited, former scouting director Roy Clark joked, “I may have even let him make a couple selections.”

Once he signed for $1.7 million, Heyward made mincemeat of the minor leagues. He was in Double-A at 19, jumped to Triple-A by the end of the season and found out Friday that he’d be fortifying a lineup that should be among the National League’s best. Heyward texted his mom, Laura, to let her know he made the team, and the family woke up at 4 a.m. the next day to drive here from McDonough, Ga.

Before the Braves’ game against Washington, Heyward held court with his parents and 14-year-old brother Jacob – who, one scout said, is already drawing the attention of scouts – on the team’s bench. Over sidled the Braves braintrust – president John Schuerholz, general manager Frank Wren and assistant GM Bruce Manno – to exchange pleasantries. Hitting coach Terry Pendelton stopped by to introduce himself and, as he walked away, said: “You guys have done an excellent job with the young man.”

The Heywards attended Dartmouth and stressed education and respect. When Heyward wanted to play football, Eugene said: “I know we live in a democracy, but this is a dictatorship. No.”

So they spent hours in batting cages, father helping son hone his swing. Heyward finds himself compared to so many of the great left-handed African-American hitters: Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Fred McGriff, Darryl Strawberry. Maybe he’s this generation’s Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) Or he could settle for being like Larry Walker, a walking bundle of talent with no definable weakness.

The hype that accompanies Heyward is part of his uniqueness. Last year, Baltimore officials spent the spring tamping down expectations on Wieters, then started him in the minor leagues. The Braves have taken the opposite tack with Heyward. They can’t help it. They see his ability, and tricking themselves is futile.

“I’ve scouted for 25 years or so,” said Clark, now the Washington Nationals’ scouting director. “I don’t know anybody like him. I can’t compare him to anyone. So big and strong and intelligent, with such great makeup and discipline at the plate.”

Such praise is lavished more now than ever, though the sense around Heyward differs from Wieters or Evan Longoria(notes) or Joe Mauer(notes), of whom greatness was anticipated more than expected. Heyward is closer to Alex Rodriguez(notes) and Griffey than anyone: the can’t-miss of all can’t-miss players, ones whose plaques in Cooperstown practically precede their first at-bats.

Junior went No. 1 in the 1987 draft. Same with A-Rod in 1993. Which edifies the Braves and Goetz all the more. He left the organization following the 2007 draft to become a sports agent, and his last find – the one for whom he temporarily took up forestry – was there 14 picks into the draft because no one else saw what he did.

“You had to dream a little bit,” Goetz said. “But there are 13 teams that wish they had dreamed.”

And stalked a little, too.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Mar 28, 2010