Monday, July 22, 2013

Discussion: Jason Heyward to Center

Before Sunday's game with the White Sox, Dave O'Brien tweeted that the Braves were going to move Jason Heyward to center field for the time being with B.J. Upton out.  This move does have both positives and negatives so I'll look at both.


Outside of Heyward, the Braves have two players with experience in center.  Reed Johnson does a few things rather well at this level.  He hits lefties at a good rate.  He's competent in a corner outfield slot.  And that's a few.  One thing Johnson is simply not capable of doing is playing center field.  It's not a slight on him, but he's just not able to play center field.  Very few can.  If Heyward and Johnson aren't playing center, the only other option is Jose Constanza.  The little spark plug hasn't played much center at the major league level and when he has, he has been horrific.  He also hasn't been an everyday option in center since 2009.  Typically, if you can play center, you will stay there.  That's not to say that Heyward will be a plus in center where Heyward has only four starts and 29 innings.  In the minors, he only had 17 games there.  Since he was drafted, Heyward has played right field nearly every night, except for the ones where he was injured (and too many times, that has been the case).  Nevertheless, Heyward's superb range in right makes him one of the best, if not best, right fielders defensively in the game.  While playing center is different and picking up the ball off the bat is also more difficult, Heyward is definitely athletic enough.

Second, Heyward in center with Justin Upton almost certainly moving to right opens left field for Evan Gattis to get his fair share of consistent at-bats.  There are concerns with Gattis playing every day.  As a starter, Gattis is hitting .222/.281/.467 in his first 46 starts.  He seems to be better when Fredi Gonzalez can pick the spot he comes to the plate.  Still, the only way he Braves find out how he will handle being a starting player is to start him.  Johnson and Constanza will likely have to be ready to be a defensive replacement as Gattis in left is scary.  Sometimes, though, you have to sacrifice defense for hitting.


Heyward is coming off a hamstring injury.  Is the best course of action to put him in center, where he probably has some level of discomfort, and let him try to range from gap-to-gap?  Especially considering if Gattis is in left, Heyward has to be counted on to make up for some of Gattis's complete lack of range?  If Heyward is feeling any soreness in his hamstring, playing center field could either cause him to nurse it or hurt himself further.

Plus, as much difficulty as Heyward has had with getting comfortable at the plate, making him more uncomfortable with a strange position is worrisome.

Beyond that, using Gattis and Chris Johnson in the same game means the Braves will likely be using two defensive replacements in late games with the lead.  This could be dangerous when the Braves do give up the lead, forcing the Braves to rely on the bats of Paul Janish, Reed Johnson, and/or Constanza late in games, even in extra innings.  The five-men bench quickly becomes a three-men bench at best.  That handcuffs how aggressive the Braves can be in crunch time.  Replacing Brian McCann with a pinch runner would probably fall on a pitcher.


Bottom line, the Braves don't have many options.  Todd Cunningham's defense in center is probably the best of the possible options, but he's in Gwinnett.  So excusing him, the three options presented to Fredi Gonzalez clearly point to Heyward being the best.  While there is a valid amount of concerns about a move like this, especially from an injury side, getting the better lineup options to the plate brings more value.

The Braves might find themselves dealing with the occasional short bench because of defensive replacements, but that doesn't seem like a problem they will face very often.  And how much more of an injury concern Heyward has in center vs. right is debatable.  My gut tells me he won't be more adversely at risk than if they were playing him in right.

Though it does feel very odd to agree with Fredi.  

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