Jason Heyward's time with Braves could be nearing end

Heyward's contract runs through 2015

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionFebruary 17, 2014 

Braves Spring Baseball

Atlanta Braves center fielder B.J. Upton hits a pitch during a spring training baseball workout, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

ALEX BRANDON — AP

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- There are at least two things we know about Jason Heyward going into his fifth season that would've qualified as guessing in any previous year: 1) He is a really good leadoff hitter; 2) He will not have to undergo an emergency appendectomy because he's plum out of that tube.

But the backdrop of this year, and possibly next, will be unlike Heyward's first four major league seasons in at least one other respect: There are doubts about his long-term future as a Brave.

This is the former first-round draft pick and long-celebrated prospect. This is the kid they slapped on marketing brochures and a media guide cover and played in the All-Star Game as a rookie.

This is the seeming fantasy creation who kept denting cars and crushing windshields with home runs in spring training to the point that engineers at Disney, more accustomed to designing the next futuristic adventure in Tomorrowland, had to be pulled away to construct projective tents for VIP parking spaces behind the right field wall.

Jason Heyward was like the Braves' Roy Hobbs. He was the present and the limitless future.

But now there's a backdrop of other Braves players getting long-term contracts and economic realities for 2015.

"I don't have to focus on that," said Heyward, who recently signed a two-year contract that will take him to free agency. "We're all prepared to go year to year anyway until we get to free agency."

He was drafted in 2007 out of Henry County High School. Three years later, he crushed a three-run home run in his first major league at-bat. A city exploded. There were no thoughts of his possible exit.

Heyward acknowledged the change, saying, "But this is four or five years later. All the player can do is show up, give it his best and try to help his team win games. That's all I can do. It's not up to me to say who comes here and who gets how much."

This really isn't about what Heyward has shown he can do as a player. Fact is, a case could be made he was the guy who saved the Braves last season.

That's nothing against the accomplishments by Freddie Freeman (.319, 23 homers, 109 RBI), or Craig Kimbrel (50 saves), or Julio Teheran (170 strikeouts, 3.20 ERA as a rookie). But Heyward was the Braves' last resort for a leadoff hitter. Manager Fredi Gonzalez turned to him in late July. The team took off, going 23-6 from that point. Heyward hit .322 in the top spot, and there was an obvious ripple effect down lineup.

"He set the tone," hitting coach Greg Walker said. "Here comes a 6-foot-5 guy who taps the plate and says, 'Come on, let's go.' It was fun to watch."

Heyward said, after the initial success, "I wasn't going to come into the clubhouse and question why he would want me to hit there again. It worked out for everyone."

Freeman, Kimbrel and Teheran all have received whopper extensions in the last 11 days. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons and starter Mike Minor likely are next.

Heyward got two years. Why? Because last winter, when Heyward was coming off a solid and healthy 2012 season, the two sides widely differed on his perceived value for a long-term contract (the Braves were still worried about injuries the previous two years). This winter, Heyward was coming off a season in which he was limited to 104 games because of two freakish health issues that resulted in surgeries: a ruptured appendix in April and a fastball to the face that caused a fractured jaw in August.

The Braves weren't prepared to give Heyward a Freeman-like ($135 million) deal. Two years would take care of arbitration (good for the team), and provide Heyward a potential red carpet to free agency (good for the player).

"We were in a difficult spot, through no fault of Jason's, with the injuries and the time he's had to spend off the field," general manager Frank Wren said. "It made it very difficult to put a value on where he is and what it will be. I don't think we've seen the best of him."

The problem: We've seen what Heyward can do when he's healthy and not rehabilitating from something. If we see that over the next two seasons, that sound you hear after 2015 will be like standing in the middle of the slot machine island at Caesars Palace.

If Wren believes the Braves are in a difficult spot now, imagine two years from now if they're trying to bid for Heyward's services, with potentially Freeman, Kimbrel, Teheran, Simmons, Minor and B.J. Upton (year five) all weighing on the payroll. (Justin Upton's contract also expires after 2015.)

To Heyward's credit, he is handling all of this well. Wren said that given the contracts signed by Freeman, Kimbrel and Teheran, "There's an acknowledgement that it could be uncomfortable. But Jason understands he's on the upswing of his career," and therefore this could work to his benefit.

Heyward said it's not a struggle for him to focus on today.

"The business side of things is not why you wake up in the morning to go to the gym or go to the (batting) cage," he said. "You do those things to come out here and compete and play a fun game."

It just may not be for the Braves for much longer.

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