A veteran scout was talking this week about how much he hates hype.
Then he compared Jason Heyward to Willie McCovey. With speed. And defense.
"I hate hype," he said. "But this guy can play."
|Jason Heyward's maturity and plate discipline impress scouts almost as much as his power. (Getty Images)|
And in a spring training filled with talk of baseball's next generation of stars, Heyward wins our award as the most-hyped young star of all.
It was a tough competition, particularly with Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg training in the same part of Florida. And particularly with Aroldis Chapman, the Reds' 21-year-old Cuban defector, arriving on the scene in Arizona.
Strasburg got $15.1 million to sign with the Nationals as the top pick in the draft and perhaps the best-known draft pick ever. Chapman, who had the big advantage of free agency, received $30.25 million from the Reds.
Heyward? He lasted until the 14th pick of the first round in 2007, signed for $1.7 million and had scouts wondering all spring about why he lasted that long and signed for comparatively little.
No one was debating whether he belongs in the big leagues now, four months shy of his 21st birthday.
"He's their best player," one scout said, after only a week of spring games.
By then, the Heyward legend was spreading. Even out in Arizona, people had heard about the Braves kid who broke a windshield in the parking lot beyond the right-field fence. And that was just the first of the two cars he damaged with home runs this spring.
Then there was the home run he hit in Lakeland, over the batting cages behind the right-field wall, off Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer. Braves manager Bobby Cox later described it as a "towering line drive," and many others said it was the longest ball they had ever seen hit, anywhere.
Wherever you went in Florida this spring, everyone was talking about Heyward -- scouts, managers, coaches, even opposing players who still hadn't seen him.
"Everybody, everywhere I go," Braves general manager Frank Wren told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week.
The Braves waited until last Friday to officially announce that Heyward had made the team, even though they seemed to know it at least a week or two earlier. Once it became official, Heyward's mother and father drove from their Atlanta-area home for a surprise visit to their newly famous son.
"We try to stress, look, even when you make it, you're working hard not to just get there, but to be one of the best players that ever played the game," Eugene Heyward told the Journal-Constitution.
You can't call him one of the best ever just yet, seeing as he still hasn't played an official big-league game. But you might just be able to call him the most hyped ever.
Or at least the most hyped of this spring.
|Stephen Strasburg will start 2010 at Double-A after being the No. 1 overall pick last summer. (Getty Images)|
As hyped as Heyward is, and as great as Heyward has been, he wasn't a runaway winner of our first (possibly annual) award.
Two reasons: Strasburg and Chapman.
They were the twin pitchers everyone wanted to see, the Nationals right-hander who was already well known as a collegian at San Diego State, and the Reds left-hander who was more of a mystery because he just left Cuba last July.
Both have hit triple-digits on the radar gun. Both had people planning spring training schedules hoping to get a peek at them. Both were 21 years old when spring training began (Chapman, who turned 22 on Feb. 28, is five months older). Both were the subject of debates about whether they belong in the big leagues right away, without any time in the minors.
The Nationals decided fairly early on -- and announced a couple of weeks back -- that Strasburg would be sent down. The Reds always seemed more open to the idea of keeping Chapman in the big leagues, and in fact, with a week to go before opening day they still haven't announced a decision.
The rest of the pack
Heyward, Strasburg and Chapman made this spring special all by themselves. But what was equally apparent in trips around Florida and Arizona was that there are even more budding young stars ready to emerge at the big-league level, players who you'll hear about soon if you haven't already.
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There's Marlins outfielder Michael Stanton, often compared to Heyward because they're both 20, both mature beyond their years and both huge (Stanton is 6-feet-5, 235; Heyward 6-5, 240). Heyward is ahead of Stanton (and just about everyone else) in his ability to recognize and lay off major league off-speed pitches, so the Marlins seem to have made the right decision to have Stanton begin the 2010 season in the minors.
There's Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown, a 22-year-old who got some attention last summer when the Blue Jays wanted him in a possible Roy Halladay deal. The Phillies kept him then, showed him off this spring and now see him as a probable part of their 2011 outfield, in place of either Jayson Werth (a free agent in the fall) or Raul Ibañez.
Down the coast in Port Charlotte, the Rays were raving about their young outfielder, Desmond Jennings, who could eventually replace Carl Crawford (another free agent in the fall), and about Jeremy Hellickson, a 22-year-old starting pitcher.
In Lakeland, some in the Tigers organization were saying 18-year-old right-hander Jacob Turner was already one of the best five starting pitchers in camp, and rival scouts were predicting that he'll hit the big leagues sometime in 2011, maybe even at the start of '11.
|The Marlins' Mike Stanton, in need of more seasoning, will begin this season in the minors. (Getty Images)|
And scouts following the Mets stopped criticizing their farm system after seeing first baseman Ike Davis, who didn't make the team but might be there soon, and pitcher Jenrry Mejia, who wasn't supposed to make the team on opening day but still might.
There were more, including a Starlin and a Starling. That's Starlin Castro, who showed every sign of being the Cubs' shortstop of the (near) future, and Starling Marte, a 21-year-old outfielder who may or may not make it but did catch some scouts' eyes this spring with the Pirates.
A Starlin, a Starling and the star of them all, that Heyward kid with the Braves.
They raved about his long home runs, about his plate discipline, about his instincts, about his defense, about his parents (both Dartmouth grads) and about his maturity.
And the only thing they worry about is whether all the hype will hurt.
"He went 0 for 8 in two games, and it was written up," one scout said. "You wonder if it will get to him."
Chances are it won't. And that will only add to the Jason Heyward legend that officially began this spring.