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May 24, 2010

On the Beat

Monday Update

by John Perrotto

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Anytime a player comes to the major leagues and has immediate success, he is always met with this response: How is he going to do once the league adjusts to him? Braves rookie right fielder Jason Heyward has answered that question in an emphatic and positive way. The 20-year-old made one of more memorable major-league debuts in recent years when he hit a long three-run home run in his first career plate appearance as the Braves routed the Cubs 16-5 on Opening Day at Turner Field. Heyward went on to hit .316/.409/.692 in his first 10 games before a .103/.297/.207 slide in the next 10 games dropped his triple-slash line down to .224/.358/.448.

However, it is safe to say that Heyward has adjusted back. He has hit .359/.462/.719 in his last 20 games to get his season line up to .290/.409/.580. Now it leaves one to ponder if big-league pitchers will ever find a way to get Heyward out.

"He's just so smart; he's really a brilliant kid," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He knows what the pitchers are trying to do and exactly what he has to do in order to be successful against them. I don't think you could find another player that young who has the kind of baseball instincts that he has. No one is ever going to outsmart him."

When Heyward went into his brief slump, Cox and Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton offered only a small piece of advice to their phenom. They told Heyward to be more aggressive early in the count and consider swinging at more first pitches.

Normally, young hitters never have to be told to swing at pitches as they go to the plate hacking. Heyward, though, was intentionally taking extra pitches in order to gauge the stuff of various pitchers around the league as he was facing almost all of them for the first time.

"It's not that Jason is just going up there hacking at the first pitch now," Cox said. "He is still very selective. Our point was that he was almost being too selective and that it was OK if he got a pitch he could handle to go ahead and force the action. Now, he's ready to hit that first pitch when he steps into box but he'll only swing if it's a pitch he can handle. He doesn't get himself out very often."

Heyward is 2-for-6 with a double and a home run when he has connected on the first pitch and has also reached on an error. When ahead in the count, he has put up a line of .340/.556/.660 while batting .217/.250/.391 when behind in the count.

Making adjustments doesn't faze Heyward. He learned at an early age that it is something a hitter must do in order to be successful.

"Seeing a lot of pitchers for the first time and seeing pitchers who are older than me and have more experience isn't something new," Heyward said. "Growing up, I was always playing in leagues with older kids in the summer and it was that way all the way through high school. Coming up through the farm system, the Braves kept pushing me to higher levels where I was facing older players. It's just part of the game for me, really. You look at each pitcher, see what he throws and then make your adjustments from there."

If only hitting were that simple for everyone, though. Cox just smiles when asked about Heyward's baseball aptitude.

"He really has it all," Cox said. "He's smart, he's physically gifted, he's a hard worker, and he's a great kid. It's impossible to say anything bad about him. He's almost too good to be true. A lot of people might think a 20-year-old is too young to bring to the major leagues, but we all knew this kid was special and could handle it. I just love watching him play. When we give him a day off, I really miss seeing him out there. He just has that something special about him, a special quality that you don't find in many ballplayers. I don't think I've ever seen anyone else quite like him."

David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution points out that Heyward has a shot to be the first rookie outfielder from either North America or South America to be selected to an All-Star Game since Tim Raines in 1981. Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, and Kosuke Fukudome have been voted as starters over the last 10 years, but all played professionally in Japan before coming to the major leagues.

Getting picked to the All-Star Game would only add to Heyward's already growing legend, as the hometown kid from the Atlanta suburbs has a .342 TAv and is expected to lead the Braves back to the postseason for the first time since 2005. While it seems like a fairytale, Heyward refuses to get caught up in the hype and is keeping quite the level head for a guy so young that he will not reach the legal drinking age until August 9.

"I don't take any of this for granted," Heyward said. "I'm playing the sport that I've loved since I was 5 years old at the highest level for the team I grew up following closely and rooting for all my life. It's very special and I realize what a unique situation I am in. I feel very fortunate and very excited to be in this position. It's very special."

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The heat seems to be off Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose job security has been in question since owner Jeffrey Loria flirted with firing him at the end of last season and hiring ESPN analyst and former Rangers and Mets manager Bobby Valentine. The Marlins have gone 9-5 in their last 14 games and snapped a three-game losing streak Sunday by routing the White Sox 13-0 to improve to 23-22.

"We're tracking in the right direction," Loria said.

Gonzalez won respect throughout baseball last week for his handling of shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Gonzalez benched Ramirez in the second inning of a game for not hustling, and Ramirez responded by blasting Gonzalez and his teammates in the media along with questioning his manager's credentials because he did not play in the major leagues.

Gonzalez benched Ramirez for the next game and did not reinstate him to the lineup until he apologized individually to each of his 24 teammates. Loria predicted there would be "zero long-term effect other than good things will come out of this."

"This was not major surgery," Loria continued. "This was a scratch. A Band-Aid had to be applied. It's not the end of the world. We've moved on."

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Leaving Orange County had never been a problem for the Angels until this season. The Angels are just 9-14 on the road after losing two of three to the Cardinals at Busch Stadium over the weekend. That is one of the reasons why they are 21-25 and 4 ½ games behind the first-place Rangers in the American League West after winning the division title each of the past three seasons and five of the past six.

The Angels had the best road record in the major leagues over the previous eight seasons, going 276-211. Last season, their 48 victories away from home tied the Phillies for the most in the majors. However, the Angels have lost 11 of their last 16 road games.

The schedule doesn't get any easier. The Angels have a 14-game road trip from May 31-June 13 in which they visit the Royals, Mariners, Athletics, and Dodgers. The Angels are scheduled to travel over 50,000 miles this season, the most of any major-league team. As usual, manager Mike Scioscia is not making excuses.

"You have to work harder at some things maybe in order to get your legs under you and ready to play" Scioscia said. "But I really believe if you're going to be on a plane for two or three hours, it doesn't matter if you're on a plane for four or five hours. I don't think that's the real burden of traveling. The real burden of traveling is packing and unpacking, sleeping in different beds, the time zone change. Obviously, we're at the extreme of that. But as far as a competitive issue? Not at all."

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Three series to watch with probable starting pitchers and their SIERA (all times Eastern):

Red Sox (24-21) at Rays (32-12), Monday-Wednesday May 24-26
Clay Buchholz (4.45) vs. Wade Davis (4.78), 7:10 p.m.; Jon Lester (3.14) vs. James Shields (2.85), 7:10 p.m.; John Lackey (5.09) vs. Matt Garza (3.82), 7:10 p.m.

Yankees (26-18) at Twins (26-18), Tuesday-Thursday May 25-27
A.J. Burnett (4.42) vs. Scott Baker (3.65), 8:10 p.m.; Andy Petttitte (4.53) vs. Francisco Liriano (3.31), 8:10 p.m.; Javier Vazquez (4.28) vs. Nick Blackburn (5.42), 8:10 p.m.

Cardinals (26-19) at Padres (26-18), Tuesday-Thursday May 25-27
Adam Wainwright (3.36) vs. Jon Garland (4.93), 10:05 p.m.; Jaime Garcia (3.52) vs. Kevin Correia (3.82), 10:05 p.m.; P.J. Walters (5.47) vs. Wade LeBlanc (4.39), 6:35 p.m.

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Angels have become aggressive bidders for Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt, who apparently wants traded to either the Braves or the Cardinals. The Braves have no desire to take on the approximately $30 million left on the final two guaranteed years of his contract, but the Cardinals, even with the presence of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright at the top of their rotation, might have interest as Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse are hurting. Other possible suitors include the Mets, Phillies, Nationals, and Padres. Oswalt would fit nicely into the rotations of the Rangers and Dodgers, but financial problems will preclude both from trying to deal for him. … Manger Jerry Manuel's job is safe with the Mets despite much speculation. General manager Omar Minaya wanted to give Manuel a one-year contract extension through 2011 in spring training, but his request was denied by ownership. … The Red Sox are looking for a long-term catching solution and have their eyes on former Rockies starter Chris Iannetta, now at Triple-A Colorado Springs. … The Phillies still seem to be the likely landing spot for free-agent pitcher Pedro Martinez, almost certainly sometime after the All-Star break like last season. … Third baseman Mat Gamel has been seeing playing time at first base during his minor-league rehabilitation assignment, which could be a sign that the Brewers feel they need to start finding a successor for Prince Fielder, who becomes eligible for free agency after next season and could be traded before then. … The Giants are considering releasing Todd Wellemeyer and replacing him in the starting rotation with Triple-A Fresno's Eric Hacker.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Major Leagues,  Bobby Cox,  The Who,  P.J. Walters

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