Can the Braves Still Win a World Series Without Jason Heyward?
On Wednesday afternoon at Citi Field, Jason Heyward was struck in the jaw with a 90 mph two-seam fastball from Mets starter Jon Niese. Upon hitting the ground, Heyward's 2013 regular season went down, too.
With that injury, the Atlanta Braves' 2013 World Championship hopes may have crumbled as well.
The fractured jaw suffered by Atlanta's 23-year-old right fielder and leadoff hitter wasn't just scary to watch, it was painful to endure for both player and organization.
Upon the injury, witnessed by his grandparents at Citi Field, Heyward was escorted to the hospital. After surgery to repair the fracture, Heyward is expected to miss four to six weeks of game action, according to Mark Bowman of MLB.com.
So, don't expect to see him again in the regular season.
With a 15-game lead in the National League East entering play on Thursday, the Braves shouldn't worry about their ability to qualify for October without Heyward.
Winning in October without the services of their outstanding, multidimensional outfielder would be a major task, however. Recovering from surgery shouldn't be an issue, but if setbacks occur and/or Heyward isn't ready for Game 1 of the National League Division Series, Atlanta could be in trouble.
Despite holding the best record in the National League, Atlanta's first-round opponent would not be a cakewalk. Within the volatile state of a five-game Division Series matchups, anything can happen against an inferior opponent. With or without Heyward, Atlanta is slated to take on a very, very formidable team when October opens up.
Unless teams like Arizona or Washington make improbable runs at the second National League Wild Card berth, Atlanta would open the postseason against one of the following teams: St. Louis, Los Angeles, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh.
The "worst" of that group, Cincinnati, is currently 17 games over .500 and sporting a plus-89 run differential. In other words, Atlanta will need to be at full strength to advance past just the first round of the National League playoffs.
Despite suffering from a down first half in 2013 (.227/.324/.371), contributed to by an early season appendectomy, Heyward has emerged in the second half of the season hitting a robust .317/.405/.554.
Since the All-Star break, his wOBA (weight on-base average) of .414 ranks ninth in all of Major League Baseball. Using Fangraphs' WAR, only six players in the sport have been more valuable to their team in the second half of the season.
Braves 19-4 since moving Jason Heyward into leadoff spot. He's hitting .341 as a leadoff man.— Richard Justice (@richardjustice) August 22, 2013
Outside of health, the biggest change in Heyward's play and Atlanta's campaign has centered around his spot in the batting order. For most of the first half, Atlanta won games and scored runs, but has struggled to find consistency atop the batting order. While Andrelton Simmons masqueraded around as a leadoff hitter despite an on-base percentage below .300, the Braves looked for answers in the No. 1 batting position.
When Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez moved Heyward to the top of the order, Atlanta's season changed. In 23 games, the team won 19 times, surging ahead of the National League East. In those games, Heyward reached base over 41 percent of the time.
With a career on-base percentage of .351, including .393 during his sterling 20-year-old campaign of 2010, the tall, lanky outfielder may have finally found his rightful place in the Braves long-term lineup plans.
Of course, those plans are now on hold.
Atlanta has lost a Gold Glove caliber outfielder and stellar leadoff man. Four to six weeks is enough time to hope for Heyward's presence in October. But if he's not the player he was when play began yesterday, the Braves likely don't have enough to run through the gauntlet of National League teams to reach a World Series.
Can the 2013 Braves win a World Series without Jason Heyward?
Moving forward past 2013, the idea of Heyward returning to physical form shouldn't be questioned, but the possibility of fear in the batter's box, especially against opposing left-handed pitchers, will be a concern and question raised moving forward.
Atlanta's title hopes are curtailed for 2013. In the future, starting sometime in late September or early October, they'll begin to find out if one of their franchise cornerstones can reclaim his place among the top young players in the game.
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