Two years before Mike Trout and Bryce Harper wowed fantasy owners with their fine all-around play, Jason Heyward was the highly coveted prospect everyone wanted. After a decent 2010 rookie campaign, he slumped during an injury-plagued 2011 before rebounding in 2012, finishing 10th among outfielders on the Player Rater. The question now becomes: Is that the best Heyward can do, or can he make the leap to the truly elite fantasy options, a potential top-five outfielder and/or first-round pick as early as this year?
Given his age (he's still just 23) and his overall skill set, the answer is yes.
An interesting thing about Heyward's top-10 showing among outfielders on the Player Rater last season is that he was not top-10 in any one category. His best category showing was runs, where he finished tied for 13th (with 93 runs). He was tied for 18th in homers, tied for 26th in RBIs, tied for 25th in steals and tied for 53rd in batting average. But put all of those pieces together and you have an all-around fantasy star, boosting your production in five categories.
To be considered a truly elite player, he'll probably need to rank among the top five or 10 in at least two or three of the categories, and be pretty solid in the others. This is very doable. At age 23, he still has room to grow statistically.
Let's break down each of the five primary fantasy categories to see how Heyward stacks up:
Runs: Heyward scored a career-high 93 runs in 2012, second on the team to the now-departed Michael Bourn. He mostly did that hitting third in the lineup. This year, he's likely going to bat second in a pretty stacked Atlanta Braves lineup, just ahead of Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and B.J. Upton. If he can get on base at a reasonable clip (.352 career OBP), he could approach 100 runs. A few more homers would help as well. This was his best category on the Player Rater last year, and it likely will be again in 2013.
RBIs: Heyward drove in a career-high 82 runs last year, although that potentially could be his ceiling this year if he's going to be the No. 2 hitter in the lineup, with only the leadoff hitter and occasionally the Nos. 8 and 9 hitters to drive home. The major league leader in RBIs out of the 2-hole last year was Torii Hunter with 69 (Aaron Hill led the NL with 66.). Meanwhile, the Braves' No. 2 hitter last year, Martin Prado, had 60 out of that spot. That said, Heyward does have more power than Prado, so there's a decent chance he can drive himself home at least a few more times in the process. At the very least, Andrelton Simmons, who likely will replace Bourn as the Braves' leadoff man, should give Heyward decent opportunities overall.
Home runs: This could be the category where Heyward could really break through and become a real star. He slugged 27 homers in 2012 and has the ability to hit more. One notable trend in Heyward's underlying stats is that his fly ball rate has gone from 27.2 percent in 2010 up to 36.7 percent last year (according to FanGraphs). Meanwhile, his home run/ fly ball rate in 2010 and 2012 were very similar (16.8 percent versus 16.9 percent). That rate does seem somewhat sustainable, so with another year of experience (as well as a few more fly balls), he definitely could hit 30-35 homers. The potential for that many homers alone puts him in the running to be a fantasy star; when you add in the rest of his game, he has elite potential.
Stolen bases: Heyward stole 21 bases last year -- including eight steals in eight attempts in April -- after swiping 20 combined in his first two seasons. He has the speed to steal a ton of bases, although it remains to be seen how often the team will give him the green light with some big hitters behind him in the Braves' lineup. And after his 8-for-8 start in steals last season, he went just 13-for-21 the rest of the way, so is the same confidence there? That's a valid question, but any steals total in the high teens/low 20s puts him in the realm of the top fantasy players, given the rest of what he offers.
Batting average: This could be the biggest obstacle in Heyward's rise to elite status, but he's still growing and has plenty of potential here. He showed a great batting eye in his rookie year in 2010, walking 91 times and putting up a .393 on-base percentage (top-10 in the majors), although he had just a .277 average in the process. A combination of factors (most notably a shoulder injury that could've led to a lot more ground balls) led to his disappointing .227 mark in 2011, and he hit .269 last year, not great but not terrible either.
The good news for Heyward is that his line-drive rate went up in 2012 (to 19.3 percent, from 17.8 percent in 2010 and 13.1 percent in 2011) and his ground ball rate went down (to 44.0 percent, going from 55.1 in 2010 and 53.9 percent in 2011). On the other hand, he appears to have less patience at the plate; he walked just 58 times and struck out 152 times last year (a far cry from his 91/128 numbers in 2010). While his aggressiveness at the plate has led to a few more homers, the 152 strikeouts from last year need to come down if he's going to come anywhere close to a .300 average. It doesn't help that his contact rate has also gone down during his career (79 percent in 2010 to 75 percent last year), though that could be adjusted as well.
Interestingly, with the league-average batting average going down, Heyward's average isn't as much of a drain overall as it might've been a few years ago. However, there's still room for improvement in both the batting average and on-base percentage departments, and if he can put everything together, he still has a shot at a .285-.290 average. Add all the positive numbers coming from each of the categories and you have an elite outfielder.
While Heyward's natural progression should lead to improvements across the board (provided he stays healthy), it will be interesting to see how the addition of the Upton brothers to the Braves lineup will affect Heyward's stats, whether by providing more runs or RBI opportunities, or even by potentially giving him the chance to see better pitches. It's definitely a dynamic outfield, with all three of them potentially being top-five or top-10 talent at the position.
At this point, Heyward is still ranked behind Justin Upton among Braves outfielders, but I think Heyward's power will continue to flourish, which could lead to him getting into a more RBI-friendly part of the lineup, and he will overtake the younger Upton in fantasy value this year.
Remember, there was a reason Heyward was No. 1 in Keith Law's Top 100 prospects for 2010. While there have been some hiccups along the way, Heyward is still just 23, with plenty of fantastic numbers to come.