Braves draft prep outfielder at No. 14
Georgia product Heyward thrilled to go to 'hometown team'
ATLANTA -- When Jason Heyward awoke on Thursday morning, he knew he was just a few hours away from learning who would be giving him the opportunity to realize his dream of playing at the Major League ranks.
What came as a welcoming surprise was the fact that he was physically located less than a half-hour away from the Major League park that he hopes to call his home in the very near future.
Continuing their trend of taking top high school talent from the state of Georgia, the Braves tabbed Heyward with their first selection in Thursday's First-Year Player Draft. The 17-year-old power-hitting outfielder learned of this selection while sitting in his McDonough, Ga., home, about 25 minutes from Turner Field.
As the 14th overall selection, Heyward is the earliest Braves draft pick since 1991.
"It's a dream come true to be able to have a shot to play in the Major Leagues," Heyward said. "It's a great way to be able to start my professional career with the hometown team, the Atlanta Braves."
Heyward, who recently completed a stellar career at Henry County High School, arrived at Turner Field around 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, while the Braves were taking batting practice before their series opener against the Cubs.
As he waked into the dugout to shake hands with Braves manager Bobby Cox, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Heyward could have been mistaken for a power forward that had just been selected by the Atlanta Hawks.
"He is strong," a wide-eyed Cox said after seeing his right hand engulfed by Heyward's.
Obviously, the Braves were impressed by the fact that Heyward's physical attributes. But the young outfielder also seems to have an advanced maturity that likely comes with the assistance of his parents, both of whom Braves director of scouting Roy Clark says graduated from Dartmouth University.
"We are just ecstatic," Clark said. "We didn't anticipate Mr. Heyward getting to us. He's just a quality person. But not only that, he's got tremendous upside. We thought he was one of, if not the best position player in the Draft."
It took the Braves just three years to realize the dividends of taking Jeff Francoeur with their top overall selection in the 2002 Draft. By 2005, he had risen from being a suburban Atlanta high school phenom to being the Braves' starting right fielder.
Whether or not Heyward realizes the same rapid rise remains to be seen. But the five-tool prospect certainly has the credentials that would allow him to do so. During his recently completed senior season, he hit .520 with eight homers and 32 RBIs.
|14||Heyward, Jason||Henry County HS||OF|
|33||Gilmore, Jonathan||Iowa City HS||3B|
|69||Fields, Joshua||U Georgia||RHP|
|78||Freeman, Frederick||El Modena HS||1B|
|108||Hicks, Brandon||Texas A&M U||SS|
|138||Gearrin, Cory||Mercer U||RHP||168||Dixon, Dennis||U Oregon||OF|
"He's a big kid and I'm sure he's got a lot of big things coming to him, too," said 2003 first-round pick Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who was one of the many Braves to shake hands with Heyward during batting practice.
Heyward was a center fielder throughout most of his high school career. Some have projected that he'll end up being a corner outfielder or a first baseman. He says that he hasn't played first base over the past couple of years, but looks forward to doing whatever asked of him during his professional career.
Clark says it might take some time to work out a contract with Heyward and his agent Lonnie Cooper, who also represents Cox and John Smoltz. But Cooper, who is based in Atlanta, has a good relationship with the Braves and there's reason to believe these negotiations won't prove to be too much of a burden for either side.
"I think he wants to be a Brave as much as we want him," Clark said.
As soon as he saw that the Braves had selected him, Heyward said he immediately forgot about the fact that he had signed to continue his baseball career at UCLA. This provided further indication that he'll likely soon sign with his hometown organization.
"Once it got to the Braves, I stopped thinking about everything," Heyward said. "That option I had at UCLA was a great backup."
While the Braves play in his backyard, Heyward has grown up as a Yankees fan. In fact, his favorite big leaguer is Derek Jeter.
"When I tell people that, they say he's not left-handed or even an outfielder," Heyward said. "But I just like the way that he plays and he's such a great leader. Plus, he plays for my favorite team."
When asked if he has a favorite Brave, Heyward said, "You can't help but to like how all of them play. I like them all, up and down their lineup."
Heyward becomes the fourth Georgia high school player since 2000 that the Braves have taken with their first selection. Also falling into that category were Adam Wainwright (2000), Macay McBride (2001) and Francoeur (2002).
"To be a part of that tradition and to be a part of the Braves family is very cool," Heyward said.
Other Braves Day 1 selections:
3B Jonathan Gilmore, Iowa City (Iowa) High School (sandwich pick, 33rd overall)
Scouts have been impressed with his power and the fact that he seemingly became a more versatile offensive threat this year. His ability to turn on the finest of fastballs have led some scouts to believe he's the best prospect to come out of the Midwest since Joe Mauer.
"Gilmore is very special," Clark said. "He's a football quarterback up in Iowa. When we saw him last summer, we thought he had a chance to be a first-round pick."
RHP Josh Fields, University of Georgia (second round, 69th overall)
Fields was one of the nation's top collegiate closers during the 2006 season and continued to impress last summer during Cape Cod League action. Some mechanical problems hurt him this year and likely caused him to fall in the Draft.
Despite the fact that Fields is represented by Scott Boras, the Braves are very confident that they'll be able to sign the hard-throwing right-hander.
"He got a little bit out of whack mechanically this spring," Clark said. "But we feel very fortunate to get that kind of power arm [that late]."
1B Freddie Freeman, El Modena (Calif.) High School (second round, 78th overall)
Freeman, whose strong arm caused some teams to covet him as a pitcher, played with Gilmore and Heyward in last year's AFLAC All American Baseball Classic. At 6-5 and 215 pounds, he possessed the size that Clark and his scouts were looking to find to improve their depth at the corner infield positions.
SS Brandon Hicks, Texas A&M (third round, 108th overall)
Hicks is known more for his defense. But he's proven to be a good catalyst while batting leadoff for the Aggies, who will play Rice in an NCAA super regional matchup this weekend.
"He is solid defensively and had a great year with the bat," Clark said. "We're very pleased to get him."
RHP Cory Gearrin, Mercer University (fourth round, 138th overall)
Since developing a sidearm delivery three years ago, Gearrin steadily developed into one of the nation's top collegiate pitchers. He impressed in the Cape Cod League last year and has a fastball that has touched 94 mph.
"I think batting average against [Gearrin] this year in Division I was .109," Clark said. "He's just filthy."
OF Dennis Dixon, University of Oregon (fifth round, 168th overall)
Dixon hasn't played baseball since going to Oregon to serve as the starting quarterback. But Clark loves his athleticism and believes over time that he can develop into a Major League talent. He'll play in the Minors this summer and return to school to play football in the fall.
"He's a tremendous athlete that can run, hit and throw," Clark said. "But he's going to be raw. We have to be patient with him."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.