Is Jason Heyward still a franchise player?

Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE

If you're building a team with young players around the league, is the Braves right fielder still one of the top picks?

One of the great annual traditions in the Internet baseball world is ESPN's Franchise Player Draft, in which 30 writers and television personalities pick the players with which they would start a hypothetical franchise. It's great theater because there's usually an ex-player you didn't realize was a television personality (say, one of the Alex Gonzalezes) who makes a hilarious, unexpected pick (say, the other Alex Gonzalez). The Internet rises up with great merriment, issues mean-spirited japes, and goes back into its hole until the following year.

This year's version was disappointing, though, as there wasn't a single hilarious overdraft to be found. Trout went first, Harper went second, Machado third, Posey fourth … wait a sec, this is all eminently reasonable. Well, they have some nerve.

But halfway through, there's this:

15. JASON HEYWARD, RF, ATL
(Christina Kahrl)

I've been a fan of Kahrl's since I had to dial into my school's computer lab for Internet access, so my knee-jerk reaction was to gloss over this one. If Kahrl made the pick, it was probably smart. After a while though, it started sticking out. Where Heyward was once synonymous with the idea of "franchise player," somewhere along the way, the unpaid intern in charge of my brain filed Heyward under "enigmatic young player."

That was almost certainly wrong. But this start to the season doesn't help the confusion:

Year Age PA 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2013 23 133 4 0 3 16 24 .153 .288 .270 .558 55

There are small-sample bad starts and then there are small-sample bad starts that make you question everything you once knew. Not just the baseball stuff you once knew. Life stuff. Why are we here? Do we have a soul? The Braves young outfield was supposed to account for 10 All-Star appearances over the next five years, but two months into the season the center fielder and right fielder were hitting like Cole Hamels.

Heyward's start also combines with his mercurial 2011 season (.227/.319/.389, 14 homers) and increasing strikeout rate (up three percent in 2012) to paint a picture of a player with serious flaws. At least, if that's what you want to see.

And then you look at the names after Heyward in the ESPN Draft. Justin Verlander, Troy Tulowitzki, Jurickson Profar .. even considering the contracts, there aren't a lot of players you could see in a hypothetical trade for Heyward. Would the Brewers trade Ryan Braun for Heyward right now? Legitimately no idea. Even after accounting for the "face of the franchise" part, probably not. Same goes with the Rockies and Tulowitzki, or with the Rangers and Profar.

So maybe Heyward isn't a franchise-type player after all. Maybe the expectations should be lowered a bit, especially considering his abysmal start this year.

But here's a list of players with at least two five-win seasons before they were 23:

Rk Yrs From To Age
1 Alex Rodriguez 3 1996 1998 20-22 Ind. Seasons
2 Ken Griffey 3 1990 1992 20-22 Ind. Seasons
3 Johnny Bench 3 1968 1970 20-22 Ind. Seasons
4 Vada Pinson 3 1959 1961 20-22 Ind. Seasons
5 Al Kaline 3 1955 1957 20-22 Ind. Seasons
6 Mickey Mantle 3 1952 1954 20-22 Ind. Seasons
7 Ted Williams 3 1939 1941 20-22 Ind. Seasons
8 Mel Ott 3 1929 1931 20-22 Ind. Seasons
9 Ty Cobb 3 1907 1909 20-22 Ind. Seasons
10 Sherry Magee 3 1905 1907 20-22 Ind. Seasons
11 Jason Heyward 2 2010 2012 20-22 Ind. Seasons
12 Albert Pujols 2 2001 2002 21-22 Ind. Seasons
13 Andruw Jones 2 1998 1999 21-22 Ind. Seasons
14 Rickey Henderson 2 1980 1981 21-22 Ind. Seasons
15 Cesar Cedeno 2 1972 1973 21-22 Ind. Seasons
16 Frank Robinson 2 1956 1957 20-21 Ind. Seasons
17 Hank Aaron 2 1955 1956 21-22 Ind. Seasons
18 Eddie Mathews 2 1953 1954 21-22 Ind. Seasons
19 Stan Musial 2 1942 1943 21-22 Ind. Seasons
20 Arky Vaughan 2 1933 1934 21-22 Ind. Seasons
21 Jimmie Foxx 2 1929 1930 21-22 Ind. Seasons
22 Rogers Hornsby 2 1917 1918 21-22 Ind. Seasons
23 Stuffy McInnis 2 1912 1913 21-22 Ind. Seasons
24 Tris Speaker 2 1909 1910 21-22 Ind. Seasons
25 Donie Bush 2 1909 1910 21-22 Ind. Seasons

Your trepidation about WAR is noted, but it's almost certainly the only way to ask, "Which players had two really, really good seasons before they turned 23?" quickly and with any precision. It's also a great way to note how important an uncommonly young age is when projecting future greatness. And the answer to this question is a list of 25 players that includes:

  • 15 inner-circle Hall of Famers
  • three who will be inner-circle Hall of Famers
  • four Hall of Nearly Greaters (Pinson, Magee, Jones, Cedeño) who were better than several players currently in the Hall
  • Stuffy McInnis and Donie Bush, both of whom were pretty danged okay

When presented with a list like this, a good way to see how it might relate to Heyward's future is to look for young-player hiccups in those great careers. How many of those players up there had them?

Not many. Bush had a lackluster year when he was 23. Jones stumbled a bit when he was 24 before getting back on what looked like a Hall of Fame track. Cedeño used his age-20 season to figure things out between league-tormenting seasons.

As for the inner-circle guys, Johnny Bench hit .238 with a .299 on-base percentage when he was 23, and his 27 homers were well short of the 45 he hit in his MVP season the previous year. But that's about it. So if you're looking at list of players who have done what Heyward did at a young age and marveling at the fact that about two-thirds of them were all-time greats, it's worth looking at the same list again to see how many of them have had a season like Heyward's 2011, or anything close to what Heyward's 2013 is shaping up to be. Not many. When the Hall of Famers started hitting, they never stopped.

But what all of the players on the list did have was nice, long careers that lasted through their 20s. And that's what you would bet on if you were taking Heyward in a hypothetical draft like this -- a guy who should almost certainly be a useful player for the next ten years, but one with the upside of Vada Pinson and perhaps Frank Robinson.

For a player like that, #15 seems just about right. There just aren't that many players like Heyward around, even if most of his first 100 at-bats this season have been dreadful. It's an upside worth chasing.

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