It was the Spring of 2010. He had just been named the no.1 prospect in baseball by MLB.com. All signs pointed to the fact that '07 1st Round pick Jason Heyward was ready. There were some things that had to be considered, however, in any discussion of his chances of making the major league roster out of Spring Training. The previous season, the Atlanta Braves had delayed right-hander Tommy Hanson's debut until June to stave off the start of free agency and prevent the pitcher from reaching Super Two status for as long as possible, but Heyward, then 20, who'd finished the 2009 season (his second-full season), which he played at High-A, Double and Triple-A in the Braves' system with a .323/.408/.555 line, 25 doubles, 17 HR's, 51 walks and 51 K's in 99 games and 422 plate appearances, didn't seem like he could be held back. "'If he's coming to camp, he's going to have a shot to win a job,'" Braves' skipper Bobby Cox told MLB.com's Mark Bowman at the time in an article entitled, "Phenom Heyward's future may be now."
A month later Atlanta's manager told another MLB.com writer that Heyward was, "'... as good a player as I've seen all spring -- our team, any other team.'" Heyward finished the Spring Training 18 for 59 with four doubles, a home run, 10 walks, 11 K's and a .305/.423/.424 slash in 22 games. When the Braves announced that Heyward had made the Opening Day roster, third baseman Chipper Jones praised the team's decision, telling MLB.com's Alden Gonzalez in an article entitled, "Easy decision: Heyward makes Braves", that, "'You want to leave Florida with the best eight everyday players, the best 25 guys you have in camp,' Jones said. 'Jason Heyward is part of that starting eight.'"
GM Frank Wren explained in the article that the decision was made because the Braves thought they could compete that season and believed that Heyward was, "'... going to be an integral part of a competitive team,'":
"I'm not sure how you face the other 24 players, the staff, the fans and say, 'We're going to keep him in the Minor Leagues.' I can't do that. We'll figure out his contract way down the road.'"
Can you compare the Braves' decision to the decision the Washington Nationals face heading into the 2012 campaign? Both Heyward and Nats' outfielder Bryce Harper were the top outfield prospects in baseball, but Heyward had more time in the minors than Bryce Harper's had heading into Spring Training this year. Mike Trout and the Angels last Spring might be a better comp. Trout, an '09 1st Round pick taken 25th overall by the Los Angeles Angels, was 19 (he turned 20 in August '11) and coming off a .341/.428/.490 2010 season (his first full season as a pro) in which he'd hit 28 doubles and 10 HR's in 131 games and 600 plate appearances when he went to Spring Training last year. Trout was named the no.1 prospect in baseball on MLB.com's 2011 List. After a .276/.364/.276 Spring, the Angels started Trout at Double-A and he was hitting .330 with 12 doubles, 11 triples and nine HR's in 74 games when an injury to center fielder Peter Bourjos forced LA to call him up to make his MLB debut in the first week of July.
Trout was just the third 19-year-old position to make his major league debut since 1998, following B.J. Upton in 2004 and Justin Upton in 2007. The elder Upton, a Rays' '02 1st Round pick (taken 2nd overall), finished his first pro season at Class-A and Double-A with a .297/.390/.431 slash, 30 doubles, six triples and eight home runs in 130 games and 580 plate appearances in 2003, and he had a .315/.410/.505 slash in 98 games and 433 plate appearances between Double-and-Triple-A in '04 before Tampa Bay called him up. B.J. turned 20 nineteen days after making his MLB debut in early August, and had a .258/.324/.409 line in his first 45 games and 177 plate appearances in the majors.
Justin Upton, the no.1 overall pick in '05, played 216 games and made 957 plate appearances at A-AA in the D-Backs' system before Arizona called him up in August '07, posting a .263/.343/.413 slash with 28 doubles and 12 HR's in 113 games and 501 PA's at Class-A in '06 and a .319/.410/.551 line with 23 doubles and 18 HR's in 103 games and 456 PA's at High-A and Double-A in '07 before his debut.
In the younger Upton's first 43 games and 152 PA's, the 19-year-old had a .221/.283/.364 slash, eight doubles, three triples and two home runs. Last year Trout had a .163/.213/.279 line when he was sent back down to Double-A a month later. Called back up in mid-August, Trout appeared in 26 games and made 88 PA's after returning to the Angels, putting up a .250/.318/.450 line to end his first MLB season with six doubles, five home runs and a .220/.281/.390 slash.
Bryce Harper was named the top position player on MLB.com's list of the Top Prospects for 2012 (2nd overall on the list), but he got just 452 plate appearances in during 109 games in his first pro season after being selected no.1 overall in the 2010 Draft. Harper had a .297/.392/.501 line, 24 doubles, three triples and 17 HR's at Class-A Hagerstown and Double-A Harrisburg before a hamstring injury ended his season. Harper went to the Arizona Fall League again this year and had a .333/.400/.634 slash with six doubles and six home runs in 25 games and 93 at bats, earning himself the distinction of being named the AFL's top prospect by MLB.com, after struggling early and recovering to put together a 16-game hit streak.
Nationals' skipper Davey Johnson, in an interview with 106.7 The FAN in D.C.'s Mike Wise and Holden Kushner earlier this winter, said that when Spring Training's over, "I'm going to go north with the best group of guys I can lay my hands on," explaining that he'd asked D.C. GM Mike Rizzo to keep an open mind about the left-handed hitting phenom making the team out of Spring Training.
In an interview on MLB Network Radio this winter, D.C. GM Mike Rizzo talked about how impressed he was with what he saw from the young outfielder in the Arizona Fall League. "He was terrific out there," Rizzo said, "I was out there for five games and I happened to catch him when he was actually on fire which was really exciting to see. I look at a guy who's got power potential, has the ability to put the bat on the ball consistently, he has the uncanny ability to swing and create extreme bat speed and still keep the bat through the hitting zone for a long, long time and is very, very balanced. So, it's kind of a unique hitting style and situation." Asked about his manager's comments about Harper during an interview with reporters last week, the general manager said, "'We're going to bring the best 25 north. If that includes Harper, it's Harper. When I believe Harper is ready to play in the big leagues, he'll be in the big leagues.'"
If the Nationals think they can contend this season do they want to have Harper up with the team from the start like the Braves with Heyward? Do they want to delay his ascent to make sure they get an extra year out of him in 2018? Unable to find a center fielder this winter, the Nationals (who are still looking) are heading into Spring Training with one outfield spot open and an uninspiring cast of options that could either hold the spot for Harper til he's called up if he starts in Double-or-Triple-A or provide some obstacles for the 19-year-old to overcome if he earns a spot on the Opening Day roster this Spring. Either way, barring any injuries or setbacks, at some point this season, the Nats' 2010 no.1 overall pick will become just the fourth position player in the since 1998 to debut at 19.