Chipper Sold on Braves' Star Prospect

Chipper Sold on Braves' Star Prospect

Published Feb. 16, 2010 7:08 a.m. ET

By Dave O'Brien, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
February 16, 2010

Rarely has Chipper Jones had a teammate who's bigger and hits balls harder. Last week, the Braves third baseman worked out with someone who could fit that description.

To Jones and most others who have recently seen outfielder Jason Heyward, it's not a question of if Heyward will be the next Braves superstar, but when.

"I got to hit with him yesterday, and I was more than impressed," Jones said last week after a workout with the 6-foot-4, 245-pound uber-prospect. "I've got a pretty good feeling he's going to seize this opportunity and make the most of it."

The opportunity he referred to is the chance for Heyward to be the Braves' opening-day right fielder. Team officials say that he'll have every opportunity to win the job at spring training.

Heyward is only 20 and has fewer than 200 at-bats above Class A, but he has been rated the top prospect in baseball and was Baseball America's 2009 minor-league Player of the Year.

The left-handed slugger hit .323 with 17 homers, a .408 on-base percentage and .555 slugging percentage in 99 games at three levels in the minors last season. Since last spring, Heyward has added 20 pounds that appear to be almost entirely muscle.

Those who have seen him play are often asked who he resembles. Jones said the Henry County High grad reminds him of former teammate Fred McGriff.

"His swing's obviously a little different, but he looks like a bigger, more muscular version of Fred," Jones said. "And that's saying something. Fred's 6-5, 230 or so. This kid, he's built like a brick house. To watch the way the ball jumps off his bat --- it's batting practice, I know, and everybody's supposed to do that in batting practice, but ..."

Normally restrained in his appraisal of rookies, Jones fairly gushes over Heyward. The youngster will be a non-roster invitee to spring training for the second year, this time with a chance to earn a spot.

"It's going to be interesting to see how he hits the breaking stuff, how he makes adjustments pitch-to-pitch, at-bat to at-bat," Jones said. "Can he make the adjustment? That's all something he's done in the minor leagues.

"It's a little bit different making the adjustment up here, but looking at his makeup, mindset and coachability, it looks like he's ready and raring to go."

Manager Bobby Cox said Heyward's youth and inexperience wouldn't keep him down on the farm, not if he's ready to help the Braves.

"We saw him quite a bit last spring, and he was very impressive," Cox said. "Not just hitting, but in all phases of the game. He's a good runner, he's a good thrower, and he's always hit. And he's got great makeup --- that goes a lot way, if you're thinking about taking a 20-year-old on your team. That's a huge part of it."

Chipper's winter scare

Jones said he has had a good winter that included plenty of weight lifting to regain strength that deteriorated during the second half of his career-worst 2009 season.

"I'm actually on a little bit of a diet right now, trying to lose a couple of pounds," said Jones, who weighed 230 as of last week, up about 10 pounds from last season. "But I feel good, healthy."

Health always is a concern at this stage of his career for Jones, who'll be 37 in April. Few knew about it, but he had a recent health scare: a thumb injury that he divulged only last week, after he recovered.

"I had a little scare over Christmas with my thumb while I was playing golf in Texas," he said. "My club snapped in the middle of my grip as I was swinging, and it bent my thumb back. I was on the shelf with little bit of a sore thumb for a while."