Jason Heyward is having a historically good season for a 20 year old position player. After surprisingly making the Braves Opening Day lineup after a strong Spring Training, Heyward homered in his first Major League at bat.
A wave of hype was born. He was elected as a starter for the National League All-Star team, and he was the subject of a fawning Sports Illustrated profile, capping what had been over a year of intense prospect hype. In April, Heyward was one of the most productive hitters in the game.
It isn't April anymore. Are the Braves getting enough out of playing Heyward every day to justify the millions of dollars this season will cost them down the road?
Since May 12, Heyward is hitting just .260/.361/.388 (227 plate appearances). Put another way, he's hitting .260 with no power. Heyward's earned the respect of pitchers around the Majors, and he's still getting on base at a decent clip, but the declining power is starting to become a problem. In his last five games, Heyward has theoretically gotten hot, going 12-21. However, all 12 of those hits are singles. On May 5th, Heyward had eight home runs on the season. He's hit three since.
There was a reason Stephen Strasburg made his debut in June: it allowed the Nationals to control his rights for an additional year. The Braves went the other direction, sacrificing future dollars and a year of Heyward on the roster in exchange for his services now. It looked brilliant and bold in April. Now? Not so much.
Even if we grant that he's good defensively, Heyward's .750ish OPS isn't exactly irreplaceable, assuming that's his level for the rest of the season. Are the Braves benefiting in the short term by playing Heyward every day in Atlanta? No. Are they benefiting in the long run? Probably not. It's more likely they're hurting themselves.
Is Heyward benefiting from this? Perhaps, though he might also benefit from more time in the minors. Heyward's numbers have declined to the point that it isn't certain that he's a huge upgrade over bench options Matt Diaz and Eric Hinske, or what a random B-level trade acquisition might be.
Unless the Braves send Heyward down to the minors for the rest of the season, the service time issue is probably a lost cause at this point. However, some combination of more days off and or a short return to the minors might help the young slugger. Many point to his slow recovery from a thumb injury as an explanation for his offensive struggles. Although the injury took place on May 22nd, after he'd already cooled off, it may be contributing to his continued power-outage.
Heyward remains one of the most fascinating players in the game, and appointment viewing if you're a hardcore seamhead. Just last week, Fangraphs named him the second-most valuable asset in the game, ahead of Strasburg. Nevertheless, Heyward is just 20, and the list of 20 year old hitters who truly thrived at the Major League level is tiny. The easy way out would be for the Braves to stick with the status quo. That might not be the smart thing.