This article is part of our John Sickels' Column series.
The top positional prospect in baseball is now Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward. Let's take a look at him.
Jason Heyward was well-known to scouts as an amateur in Georgia. Selected in the first round in 2007 out of high school in McDonough, he lasted until the 14th overall pick. This was actually rather puzzling at the time, as Heyward offered a complete physical tool package and was reasonably polished for his age. His bonus demands weren't outrageous, and his makeup was considered very strong. Somehow he fell to the Braves in the middle of the first round, and the home state fans should be very pleased that this talent dropped into their laps. After a brief but solid rookie ball debut, he tore up the South Atlantic League in 2008, hitting .323/.388/.483. This year he's been even more impressive, hitting .296/.369/.519 in the Carolina League, then a stunning .405/.485/.730 in 32 games after being promoted to Double-A Mississippi.
TRADITIONAL SCOUTING REPORT
Heyward is a left-handed hitter and thrower, born August 9, 1989. Listed at 6-4, 220 pounds, he is an excellent athlete with a strong throwing arm, above average speed, and great physical strength. Scouts have praised his strike zone judgment since he was in high school. Indeed, this was actually a problem as a prep: pitchers were afraid to challenge him, and since he wouldn't swing at bad pitches, he walked so many times that scouts couldn't get a good read on his swing during his senior year. This might have helped lower his draft stock slightly. His swing turned out to be just fine as a pro: it's smooth, has enough upper-cut to generate good power, but not so much as to prevent him from hitting for average. He can pull the ball sharply, but will also take pitches to the opposite field, enabling him to hit for both average and power. His keen eye results in a high walk rate, but he doesn't strike out much either, a terrific combination. Heyward also offers skill on defense, with plenty of range and arm strength for right field. He has enough speed to be dangerous on the bases, and while he isn't a huge stealer, pitchers can't ignore him. He's stolen 21 bases in 25 career attempts. Scouts praise his instincts, work ethic, and intelligence, giving him high marks off the field as well as on it.
It is hard to find any flaws in Heyward's numbers. Some were concerned that he hit just 11 homers in the Sally League last year, but he's knocked 16 this year in 39 fewer games played, slugging a composite .597 between the High-A Carolina League and the Double-A Southern League, while maintaining the high batting average from last year. His walk rate is above average., and his strikeout rate is declining, giving him a 38:42 BB:K in 300 at-bats this year compared to 51:78 in 471 last year. Indeed, his BB:K is an outstanding 17:12 in 111 at-bats after being promoted to Double-A. The fact that his contact rate has actually improved at the higher level is an extremely positive sign, especially combined with the higher walks. He's really locked in right now. He's destroying right-handed pitching to a .435/.500/.741 tune for Mississippi, and is still hitting a strong .308/.438/.692 against lefties. He's had luck on his side, with a BABIP of .419 in Double-A, not likely sustainable over the course of a full season. But even so, it is hard to nitpick these numbers; you could arbitrarily shave 100 points off his batting average and he still comes off looking like a magnificent prospect, hitting .300+ with power and strong plate discipline in Double-A at age 19/20.
FANTASY INVESTMENT VALUE
It is hard not to fall in love with Heyward. He has literally everything you look for in a prospect: excellent tools, excellent performance, young for the level, strong makeup and work ethic, no statistical flaws worth mentioning. He's still a human being, of course, and something could go wrong. He could get hurt, and indeed he's had some nagging injuries on occasion. But barring a catastrophic injury of some kind, or some sort of unpredictable personal problem, Heyward is about as perfect of a prospect as you can find. On this both statheads and traditionalists agree.
Article first appeared 8/12/09