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Heyward provides options with ability at leadoff, center

ATLANTA -- Manager Fredi Gonzalez cannot be sure of what the Braves' upcoming offseason transactions will add to the team in the way of offensive firepower, but he will take comfort in the stability Jason Heyward brought to the top of the order when he was healthy in the second half of 2013.

At the beginning of the season, the idea of Heyward as the team's everyday leadoff hitter seemed as improbable as the notion that he would man center field during the team's playoff run, and yet production concerns and injuries elsewhere in the lineup forced him into both roles down the stretch, yielding encouraging results. After hitting .223 in his first 72 games of the year, Heyward hit .325 after moving into the leadoff spot for the first time on July 27.

"He's done both and done pretty good," Gonzalez said. "The year before, he hit third most of the year and hit pretty good. You would like to have that prototypical leadoff guy, sure, and have Jason hit in the middle someplace and be productive. I think the world of him, because he brings energy, he can play defense, he can lead off, hit a home run, steal you a base. He can do a lot of different stuff."

Andrelton Simmons' struggles from the leadoff spot and Jordan Schafer's extended stay on the disabled list with a broken foot initially forced Heyward up in the order, and once the Braves ripped off 13 consecutive wins following the switch, Gonzalez elected not to change what was working.

With Simmons expected to further tap into his power potential lower in the order and Schafer still trying to recapture his first-half production on a more consistent basis, Gonzalez tabbed Heyward as the most likely leadoff man currently on the roster.

A productive campaign from B.J. Upton could have taken some of the pressure off the top of the Atlanta order this year, but Upton's .143 batting average coming out of April left him relegated to the bottom of the order and ultimately on the periphery of the Braves' postseason strategy. Gonzalez indicated Wednesday that the team's prized free-agent acquisition from last winter would get another chance to be the everyday center fielder for 2014.

"I don't think he's happy about his season," Gonzalez said. "I think the best thing for him and [Dan Uggla] is season's over, start over next year and see where we're at."

Heyward made an impression in the 20 games he spent in center, producing a string of strong defensive plays, highlighted by his diving catch that secured a one-run victory in New York on July 22, his third Major League start in center field.

"I saw him in places as a center fielder that I've never seen another center fielder be, and I'm not talking about catching balls," Gonzalez said. "I'm talking about roaming the center field like you would teach your high school guys. When the ball goes to left field on the ground, you [back up the play] in case the ball beats the left fielder, or a ball's off the wall and he's backing up the right fielder in case the ball gets over the head of the right fielder and he's there."

Regardless of whether Heyward returns to the role he was thrust into during the final months of the 2013 season, the flexibility the 24-year-old outfielder has displayed allows the Braves to get more creative with how his athleticism and imposing physical frame impacts each game.

"I don't know if he could play any better than he did in right field, but he sure enough didn't play any worse than any center fielder in the Major Leagues," Gonzalez said. "The only thing that looks out of place is he's 6-foot-5, 245 [pounds]."

Eric Single is an associate reporter for
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