published Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Heyward: Braves 'to have some fun'

  • photo
    Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward catches a fly ball during a spring training baseball workout in Kissimmee, Fla. Chipper Jones has retired, and the one-time phenom seems more than capable of taking over as the face of the franchise.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Jason Heyward already has filmed a TV commercial this spring with none other than Hank Aaron.

On this day, the J-Hey Kid is changing into his white Atlanta Braves uniform for yet another photo shoot.

Heyward is in demand -- again -- and better get used to it. With the retirement of Chipper Jones, the big guy in right field is poised to take over as the face of the franchise.

"It's sort of a new team," Heyward said Thursday before heading out to take care of his latest obligation. "It's a new team that's going to have some fun this season."

A year ago, he came into spring training facing major questions after a hugely disappointing second season. But Heyward insisted all along that he merely needed to stay healthy to live up to the potential he showed as a rookie star.

He proved to be right.

Heyward played in 158 games, helping the Braves claim a National League wild-card spot for the playoffs by hitting .269 with 27 homers, 82 RBIs and 21 stolen bases.

A more important number is 23.

That's Heyward's age, signaling a player who is only beginning to tap into his potential. The bandwagon is starting to get crowded, much like it was in 2010 when he hit a three-run homer the first time he stepped to the plate in the big leagues.

None of that matters to Heyward, who insists he's never paid much attention to what's being said beyond the field -- both the flattering and not so flattering.

"I don't worry about any of the outside stuff," he said, one day before the Braves' spring opener against the defending American League champion Detroit Tigers. "The clubhouse is where it counts, man. Besides, I'm always going to be my biggest critic. But at the end of the day, you've got to be healthy. I can't stress that enough. You've got to be healthy to play games and get the most out of yourself. That's what I was most proud of last year: being able to play 158 times."

His teammates are impressed with the way he bounced back, responding in the best way possible to all those who questioned if he was just a one-year wonder.

"I was so happy for him," second baseman Dan Uggla said. "Everybody was kind of riding his butt after that second year."

Indeed, it was quite a comedown from Heyward's rookie season, when he was hailed by Aaron as just the sort of player who would lure more blacks back to baseball, when his popularity was so high he was voted to the All-Star Game as a starter.

"His face was everywhere -- TV, billboards, everywhere you can think to put it, they put it," Uggla recalled. "That's a lot of pressure to put on a 21-year-old. To see him bounce back and really carry us much of the season ... that shows a lot about his character and the person he is."

The expectations will be even higher this season, especially after the Braves made two huge moves during the offseason. Looking to replace Jones' production, they signed center fielder B.J. Upton to a $75 million contract and made a blockbuster deal with Arizona to land his younger brother, Justin Upton, who takes over in left field.

Just like that, Heyward is part of perhaps the most exciting outfield in all of baseball, a trio of 20-somethings who provide a rare combination of power and speed.

"It's great to not lose a step," he said. "This year, a new team, and two more great guys. That's promising."

Heyward's career got way off track in 2011, when a lingering shoulder injury affected his swing and essentially messed up the entire season. He batted just .227 with 14 homers and 42 RBIs, his production dropping off so dramatically down the stretch that he wound up sharing time in right field with journeyman Jose Constanza in the midst of a playoff race.

This spring, Heyward is much more comfortable.

"I don't feel like I'm lacking for anything," he said. "Baseball is a feel game. You need to know what you're looking for. You need to know the right feel for how the swing is broken down -- the timing, the tempo, even something as simple as the stance. Those are all things I have now. Going into the offseason with 158 games played in one season, that's a lot of reps. That's a lot of time put in."

He's more in tune with his body, too, which leaves him feeling better prepared to deal with the inevitable aches and pains of a grueling season. He's slimmed back down to around 230 pounds, having learned that bulking up didn't work for him.

"That's the beautiful thing about time -- being able to gauge what you want to do, what you want to take from year to year, what's going to make this work for you," Heyward said. "You have to take it easy some days. Sometimes, more is less. Other times, you've got to get after it. Your body will tell you. It's little things like that, little tidbits, that help you along the way."

Uggla said it's unfair to place Chipper-like expectations on Heyward, especially at this young age. Jones spent two decades with the Braves, putting together an impressive record that included both an MVP award and a batting title. He very well could end up in Cooperstown.

But Heyward certainly has the look of someone who could lead the Braves for years to come.

"He's a great player to build a franchise around," Uggla said. "He's humble. He's talented. He's a great teammate. He cares about his teammates and the people around him. How could you not want to have a guy like that on your team or build a franchise around a guy like that?"

Heyward balks at looking too deep into the future. But, very much in present, he got his swagger back.

"I feel like if I'm on the field, I'm going to put up the numbers," Heyward said. "The more opportunities I have, the more I like my chances."

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