21. Can Jason Heyward be the starter in RF?

The Braves have the best prospect in the game. But when will Jason Heyward be ready?

Jason Heyward, the consensus best prospect in minor league baseball, will be the Braves starter in right field. It's not a matter of if, but just when it will happen.

Heyward was even better in his second full minor league season than he was in his first. And the outstanding play has the Braves, and all of baseball, wondering exactly when the 20-year-old will be ready for the show.

Heyward started the 2009 season in Myrtle Beach. He hit .296 with 10 home runs and 31 RBI in 49 games. Then the Braves sent him to Double-A Mississippi, where he hit .352 with 7 home runs and 30 RBI in 47 games. The Braves then tested Heyward with a promotion late in the season to Triple-A Gwinnett, where he hit .364 in three games.

So for the 2009 season, Heyward hit .323 with 17 home runs, 63 RBI, a .408 on base percentage, and a .555 slugging percentage in only 99 games. Heyward missed time with a hip injury early in the season, and then battled a heel injury later in the year.

Then when Heyward got to the Arizona Fall League, he battled a lower back strain that was causing discomfort in his hamstring area.

The injury in Arizona killed the Braves chances to evaluate Heyward's readiness for the major leagues. They hoped Heyward would go to Arizona and do what Tommy Hanson did last fall, when Hanson showed how close he was to being ready for Atlanta.

If Heyward had gone to Arizona and continued his good work, it would perhaps be easier for the Braves to predict when he'll be ready to take over in right field. But since that didn't happen, it's probably going to force the Braves to find a stopgap for the position until Heyward is ready.

The Braves could gamble and hope that Heyward will have a great spring training and prove he's ready to take over on Opening Day as the starting right fielder. But more than likely, they will at least bring in a cheap alternative to bridge the gap until Heyward proves he's ready for the majors.

Heyward could return to Triple-A Gwinnett and then take over sometime in the summer. But then the Braves have to decide what type of player can be there in right and then either move to another position or go to the bench. That's not always easy to find that type of player.

It would be much easier for the team if they knew for a fact Heyward would be ready to go on Opening Day. But he's still only 20 years old, so it's just too much of a gamble to not have at least an insurance policy for the position.

Last spring Heyward wowed the Braves coaches with his outstanding power, unbelievable defense, and intelligence on the baseball field. It's very possible he could do enough to make the same impression again next spring.

The Braves could simply have Matt Diaz play right until Heyward is ready. That's definitely a possibility. And if Jordan Schafer has a good spring training and proves he's healthy, he could step in and play the position.

There are several free agent outfielders that could be brought in to play right field. But those players may not easily step aside when Heyward shows he's ready to take over. And agents are going to know Heyward could push their client out of the way.

Many expect the free agent market to be flooded after the first of the year with a number of players who are non-tendered. There may be some outfielders who need to get some at bats to repair their value, and the Braves could find a bargain in that market.

But it's a good problem to have. The Braves really think by the end of 2010 Heyward could easily be the starting right fielder and one of the best hitters in the lineup. It's just a matter of when he'll take over, and what they'll do until then.

When Heyward does graduate to the big leagues, the Braves could have a legit five-tool, All-Star talent. Heyward has a chance to be the face of this franchise for the coming decade, and there's little reason to believe he's going to need much more, if any, development in the minors to get to right field at Turner Field.

Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.

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