LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL- The Atlanta Braves have been in a downswing since their last of 14 consecutive division championships in 2005, but they’re ready to reload. General manager Frank Wren wasn’t ready to concede 2009 (as evident by acquisitions of Derek Lowe and Garrett Anderson) and they have an abundance of young players coming through their farm system. I got a good look at outfielder Jason Heyward and first baseman Freddie Freeman on Sunday afternoon against the world champion Philadelphia Phillies. Heyward and Freeman were the Braves’ first two round picks respectively in 2007, fresh out of high school. Both are playing regularly with the big league club in spring training less than two years later and holding their own.
Combined with outfielder Jordan Schafer (who didn’t play Sunday), the Braves are blessed with three strong lefthanded bats that could all be making an impact over the next two years.
The 6-4, 230 Heyward is truly a physical specimen with broad, sloped shoulders, a small waist, and long legs. He’s very strong now and will probably put on 15+ more pounds of muscle by the time he’s mature. He has tools across the board and is aggressive which makes for an exciting combination.
Heyward went 1-4 with two strikeouts where he simply guessed wrong. His hit was an impressive opposite-field single off of Chan Ho Park. The swing is smooth with late lift and already average bat-speed. As the approach develops, he has a chance to become a middle-order hitter. For low Single-A Rome, he hit .323-11-52 in 449 AB, slugging .483 and getting on base at a .388 clip.
Heyward, who hails from just south of Atlanta, is also a plus runner (15 steals at Rome) with long strides made for the outfield. His routes are shaky now, he didn’t read the ball well off the bat, but in time he should have plus range for a corner. His arm is solid-average now and projects to plus. Combined with his bat, he clearly has all-star upside.
Freddie Freeman is a hair taller (6-5, 220), and also generates considerable loft power in his lefthanded swing. His swing isn’t nearly as pretty; Freeman has a slight hitch, and he shifts weight from his front foot to his back, and then has a tendency to get out on his front foot again. Where he’s advanced is his approach, Freeman recognizes pitches and has an idea on how to work the count. Like Heyward, he shows the ability to dump hits the other way. Most big swingers are unable to adjust to that, but Freeman may be out of the Fred McGriff mold; the uppercutting power hitter who can hit for average by cutting down and going the other way on outside pitches. He did hit a high-powered .316 with 18 homeruns and 95 RBI for Rome last year.
Defensively, the southern California product should be solid-average at first. His hands work okay as does his first step, and he’ll have a plus arm for relays and the 3-6-3 double play. Freeman did make 14 errors over the 2008 season, so there are likely issues with the routine play that he’ll have to iron out as he moves up.
It wouldn’t shock me if both Heyward and Freeman skipped High-A and went straight to AA Mississippi next year. They appear to be ready for the fast track.
OTHER NOTES/PHILLIES PROSPECTS: Leftfielder John Mayberry is still awful interesting to me. The former Texas Rangers 1st-rounder from Stanford was acquired by the Phillies for one of their own former 1st-rounders, Greg Golson. Mayberry is a giant 6-6, 250, who actually seemed to tower over Ryan Howard. Despite his size, he’s very athletic and his swing is fairly compact from the right side. I see considerable upside as a power-hitting OF/1B despite only spotty success in the minors. I look for him to have a breakout year at age 25, whether he’s sent to AAA or actually makes the team out of spring. If one of the big league outfielders go down early, Mayberry would have to be considered…. Catcher Lou Marson came in to the game late and flew out in his lone at-bat. He’s an athletic receiver and an average thrower who got a cup of coffee last September. Marson’s swing doesn’t have a lot of zone-time or pure bat-speed, but he managed to hit .314-5-46 with a whopping .433 OBP in 322 Double-A at-bats for Reading last year. It has to do with his sound approach and great eye at the plate, which will take him far. He’s at least a solid major league backup and perhaps a solid starter… The Phils’ 2008 first-rounder Anthony Hewitt was with the club as well despite being only nine months out of high school. He came to pinch-hit in the ninth, but was left on deck when the third out was recorded…. The Phillies don’t look like defending world champs on the farm, and I mean that in a good way; their system isn’t totally depleted, there are more players on the way. I didn’t get to see their best prospect, outfielder Dominic Brown, who will be in minor league camp and is ticketed for the High-A Clearwater club in April.