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Heyward Named Atlanta’s Starting RF

Protect your windshields, Braves fans: Jason Heyward‘s potent lefty bat is coming to Turner Field. The Atlanta Braves officially announced that the best position prospect in the game will open the 2010 season as the club’s starting right fielder.

Just 20, Heyward has pummeled opposing pitchers since the Braves selected him with the 14th overall pick in the 2007 draft. His all-around talents have earned the admiration of all the prospect mavens: Baseball America and ESPN’s Keith Law named the Georgia prep product the best talent in the minors, while Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein ranked him number two. John Sickels gave Heyward (who would be a junior had he attended UCLA) an A grade.

The 6-4, 220 pound man-child made his full-season debut in 2008, spending almost the entire year at Low-A Rome in the South Atlantic League (he got a late-season cameo in the High-A Carolina League with Myrtle Beach). Collectively, Heyward hit .316/.381/.473 in 533 plate appearances. He displayed some pop (.157 Isolated Power), while controlling the zone pretty well for such a young player (9.6 percent walk rate, 16.6 percent strikeout rate). Heyward was polished on the base paths as well, stealing 15 bags in 18 tries.

This past year, Heyward zoomed from Myrtle Beach to Double-A Mississippi of the Southern League, while getting a few trips to the plate in the International League for Triple-A Gwinnett. In 422 total PA, Heyward authored a .323/.408/.555 line, with a .232 ISO. Heyward walked as often as he whiffed, with 51 BBs and K’s apiece. While not a massive stolen base threat, he had 10 SB in 11 attempts.

Without question, Heyward is a premium keeper pick. But what can he contribute in 2010? CHONE projects Atlanta’s golden child to hit near a league-average clip, with a .258/.324/.416 triple-slash (98 wRC+). That jives with Heyward’s 2009 Major League Equivalent (MLE) line, which was .255/.321/.423 according to Minor League Splits. ZiPS is more optimistic that he can produce right away, forecasting .275/.341/.429 (110 wRC+). PECOTA likes Heyward even more, with a .280/.348/.477 projected line.

Heyward is a prodigious talent, a 20 year-old with the plate approach of a 30 year-old. Though it would be expecting too much for him to be a force at the plate right away, Heyward’s offensive floor for the upcoming season is probably that of an average MLB hitter. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if he easily surpasses that level, with a batting line somewhere between his ZIPS and PECOTA projections. The only real quibble regarding Heyward is durability: he missed time during the ’09 regular season with oblique, hip and heel injuries, and he was sent home early from the Arizona Fall League with a hamstring strain and a sore back.

At worst, Heyward figures to be average in 2010. At best, he could be a key contributor in all fantasy leagues. This may be the last time that you can get him without giving up a primo draft pick. Just don’t park too close to the ball park.

(As a side note, Melky Cabrera and Matt Diaz will split time in left field. While that arrangement should make for a productive real-world tandem, there’s little fantasy value to be had.)