Is Jason Heyward Baseball's Best Prospect For 2010?

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Is Jason Heyward Baseball's Best Prospect For 2010?
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There are just some people born and bred to play a certain sport. A few examples are Wayne Gretzky in hockey, Michael Jordan in basketball, and Peyton Manning in football.

Baseball isn’t without its innately special players. The craze around Washington, D.C., and Stephen Strasburg has dulled the hype of possibly one of the better hitting prospects in several years. Since his selection by the Atlanta Braves straight out of high school in 2007, Jason Heyward has rocketed through their minor leagues and has been deemed one of the “surest things” to come along in quite some time.

The most renowned baseball minds drool over his talent, the fans in Atlanta have been counting down the days until spring training since their season ended, and fantasy owners (especially those in keeper leagues) should be ready to take a chance on the rookie, if you’re not already too late to the party.

Last season, between High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, Heyward produced just as advertised:

370 AB
.327 AVG (121 Hits)
17 HR
61 RBI
69 R
10 SB
.413 OBP
.554 SLG
.346 BABIP

After dealing with some nagging injuries throughout the season, Heyward was able to get into 99 games this past season, hence the low at-bat total.

Not only was Heyward a High School All-American, he’s been rated as a top prospect since he stepped foot on a minor league diamond as an 18-year-old. This past year saw Heyward receive Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year honors, and, despite only playing in three games at Triple-A, the consensus across baseball is that Heyward has nothing else to prove at the lower levels.

Even as a 20-year-old, Heyward will be given every opportunity to win the right field job—outright—in spring training, but what should we expect from him next season?

Just to start off, Heyward has accumulated 882 at-bats in rookie ball through Triple-A since he was drafted. He currently has a .321 minor league average with 29 home runs, 125 RBI, a .394 OBP and .509 SLG.

It doesn’t seem overly impressive until you realize Heyward was just 17 when he was drafted, and it takes time for even college hitters to acclimate to the minor leagues. In his first full year he batted .318 with 11 homers and 52 RBI in 120 games, so it’s pretty clear that he’s experienced quite a fast growth spurt over the past two seasons.

While some pessimists may point to a higher than normal BABIP (batting average on balls in play), realize that Heyward has amassed a .355 BABIP throughout his stint in the minor leagues, so it is not all that far off.

Don’t expect such a high BABIP in the majors just because the better talent that he’ll face, but I’d still expect Heyward to have a BABIP that’s on the higher side. Heyward has a career 17.8 percent line-drive rate, which took off greatly as he moved up the ladder this season, to the lower 20s in Double-A and Triple-A combined.

His fly-ball rate has increased over the past two years, from 32 percent to 37.5 percent this past season, and he’s been able to turn more of them into home runs. Compare these rates to a similarly acclaimed young prospect, Justin Upton (19 percent LD and 39.4 percent FB), and if Heyward is able to keep is rates even close to his minor league level, they’ll prove to be very usable.

Besides just the aggregate statistics he’s shown on the stat sheet in the minors, Heyward has matured to a level most players reach in their mid-20s. He’s 6′4″ and weighs 245 pounds, with the physical tools to boot. Some of the best baseball analysts can’t say enough about Heyward.

For the second year in a row, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus rated Heyward as Atlanta’s best prospect, saying this year that his perfect-world projection is as a “game-changing superstar.” He adds that Heyward has “the ability to contend for batting and on-base titles, all in a massive athletic package that’s loaded with tools.”

ESPN's Keith Law rated Heyward as the major league’s best prospect, commenting that Heyward is a future star and will easily become “a middle-of-the-order bat with power and patience.”

Frankie Piliere of FanHouse.com rated Heyward as his fourth best prospect but again used a word like “star” in describing him and explained that Braves fans should be “confident” in the future impact for Heyward.

And, finally, Jonathon Mayo of MLB.com may have had the highest praise for Heyward: “All-Star right field prototype, a la Dave Winfield or Dave Parker.”

Of course there are times when even the most respected scouts and analysts are wrong, but right now there just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to worry about when it comes to one of the front-runners for NL Rookie of the Year.

In compiling my player projections, I research from all different sources, in attempt to get the most balanced report for the readers of Rotoprofessor. In all honesty, I couldn’t find anything that even expressed any bit of hesitation when discussing Heyward’s game.

While many of your fantasy peers will jump the gun to draft Stephen Strasburg—and understandably so—realize the volatility of pitchers and uncontrollable nature of their craft. Then understand the team Strasburg will play for.

Hitters are steadier, often easier to rely on. Don’t worry about reaching for Heyward in drafts this year, even if you have to keep him on the bench. His upside will far exceed anyone else around his average draft position, which is currently at 309, good for the 25th round. The earliest he’s been drafted is 167th, and even that would be OK for someone of his caliber—I’d rather take a chance on him than Rajai Davis, Jack Cust, or Juan Rivera.

What are your thoughts on Heyward? Will he be able to live up to the hype? Do you see him making an impact in 2010?

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