Friday, January 23, 2015

Favorite Braves List - Right Field

(Previous information on this series can be found here. Of importance, this is not a best list, but a favorites list since I started to follow the Braves. That limits options from 1991-to-now.)

Favorite Braves List (so far)
Ace Starter - Greg Maddux
#2 Starter - John Smoltz
#3 Starter - Tim Hudson
#4 Starter - Tom Glavine

Closer - Craig Kimbrel
Catcher - Brian McCann
First Base - Fred McGriff
Second Base - Marcus Giles
Shortstop - Andrelton Simmons
Third Base - Chipper Jones 
Left Field - Ryan Klesko
Center Field - Andruw Jones

Honorable Mention: Well, David Justice hit that homer in 1995 when he wasn't being an ass so that's enough to remember him fondly. Gary Sheffield was solid in two years with the Braves, though the only thing I really remember is the three hits in 30 AB for the Braves in the playoffs.

Favorite Braves List - Right Field
Jason Heyward

In full disclosure, I have had some issues sticking with this blog. I could tell you a wonderful story about being a father for a second time, returning to school, and so on and so forth and hey, it would be a true story, too. But whatever, it is what it is. One of the long running series for my blog is this one. Some have been confused about it. "Where's Warren Spahn? Rabbit Maranville?" But that wasn't the purpose of this list. If you want to talk about the best Braves of all time, players on my list may or may not be in the discussion, but if you want to spend some time talking about who were my favorite Braves that I actually watched, this list will save you some time from hearing me drone on.

When I started this list with McCann in June of 2012, I honestly thought I would get through the list in the span of a few months. I had them written down and I was good to go. But here we are in 2015 and I'm just adding my 12th player to this team and because it took so long, he has been traded away before he could join Kimbrel and Simmons as active Braves on this list. I'm such a lazy ass.

Jason Alias Heyward was drafted with the 14th overall pick of the 2007 draft. He only fell that far because of signability concerns and the Braves jumped at the chance to add Heyward to their collection of Atlanta-area draftees. Though I hate his nickname, the J-Hey Kid rocketed up the minors and always hit against pitchers much older than him. And he beat them up. One year of rookie ball and a year mostly spent at Rome led him to a 2009 season where he started the year at Myrtle Beach and ended the season with Gwinnett. In the process, he posted a .963 OPS with 17 homers and a BB for every strikeout. I remember seeing him play against the Lynchburg Hillcats as a member of the Pelicans that year. Lynchburg would go on to win the title, but Heyward was long gone by the time the Carolina League playoffs came around that year. In one game at City Stadium, Heyward blasted a homer into the Lynchburg night in a game the Braves won 6-0. Random, but after Craig Kimbrel replaced Brandon Beachy (he was a reliever back then), and Kimbrel came in throwing his typical heat, a Hillcat fan yelled, "we're already losing bad. You can go a little easier on us!" Here is a picture showing Heyward and his best friend on the team, Freddie Freeman, as they prepared for a 'Cats pitcher.
Okay, I might not be a photographer, but getting a chance to watch Heyward back then made me an even bigger fan than I already was. I felt fortunate because he was soon moved up to Mississippi and Gwinnett after that. There was talk that the Braves might call him up before the end of 2009, but with the Braves floundering toward an average finish, they rightfully let Heyward stick in the minors.

That led to spring training before the 2010 season. While the Braves didn't outright say the position belonged to Heyward, they certainly didn't bring in anyone for him to beat out. On opening day, Heyward showed why that he indeed belonged. He would hit 17 more homers and go to his surprisingly only All-Star Game. He added a sexy .393 OBP with the help of 91 walks.

Clearly, he needed to be changed. After struggling with injuries and Chipper Jones challenging his willingness to play with pain, Heyward came to camp in 2012 looking to shake off a bad sophomore season, new Braves hitting coach Greg Walker wanted Heyward to be more aggressive. It would lead to a career high 152 strikeouts, but to Walker's credit, it also led to Heyward's career-best 27 homers. Batting behind Michael Bourn, he also swiped 21 bases, another career high, while winning his first Gold Glove. Yeah, the walks were no longer there, but you can do a lot worse than .269/.335/.479.

Heyward would do worse than that, though. He struggled to open 2013 with Andrelton Simmons hitting leadoff and never getting on base. Once Heyward was moved to leadoff, things began to take off and Heyward's OBP kept climbing toward .350, but an untimely ball to the face from Jon Niese put his season in jeopardy. He would make it back for the playoffs, but managed just four hits in 23 trips to the plate. Even more notable...he didn't walk.

In 2014, there was a bigger spotlight on Heyward and he responded with his best season. With his glove, that is. In the batter's box, his OPS went to the wrong side of .750. After the season, he was traded to the Cardinals. And I cried.

At this point, I have no idea what type of player Heyward is. He's missed significant action twice in five years, posted three seasons with an OPS under .800, and he's blasted 20 homers once and stole 20 bases twice. With the glove, he is tremendous and a real weapon. Plus, watching him run the bases is like baseball porn. And that's the stuff I will miss now that he's gone. I thought the world of Heyward, though I resigned myself to believe he wouldn't be a Brave forever. After all, what kind of market can he really demand? Who's truly comparable? Certainly, it was too rich for the Braves' blood. 

That doesn't stop me from wanting to keep the 25 year-old. If he ever breaks out, he will be among the best in the game and live up to the hype. If he doesn't, he will still be a very good player. Either way, Heyward is a worthy addition to my Favorite Team. I only wish he could be an addition for my favorite team. Or should I say, return to it. 

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