Heyward injury could be big blow to Braves


The worst sound I ever heard on a baseball field was back in April 1987, when Kirby Puckett hit a line drive off the cheekbone of Mariners pitcher Steve Shields. Sitting in the first row of the second deck behind home plate at the Kingdome, I couldn't hear Puckett yell, "Watch out!" but I could hear the sickening sound of that thud that seemed to echo throughout the stadium.

Baseball doesn't entail the violence of football or even hockey, but there are two plays that can result in terrifying incidents: a line drive to the mound, and a pitch to the face. Careers have been tragically ruined by such episodes.

Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward suffered two jaw fractures Wednesday when hit by Jonathon Niese's 90 mph fastball. He'll undergo surgery Thursday, and while the injury shouldn't be career threatening in any way, he will miss an estimated four to six weeks. That almost sounds like a positive scenario after watching Heyward down on the ground for three scary minutes before he finally walked off the field.

Assuming the surgery goes well, that timetable doesn't leave much cushion for Heyward to get ready for the playoffs, considering there are five and a half weeks remaining in the regular season. If he heals quickly, he might get in a week's worth of games; if he heals slowly, he could miss the first round of the postseason.

The timing is particularly frustrating for Heyward, considering how well he'd been playing of late. After a slow start in April and then a stint on the disabled list after an appendectomy, he was hitting less than .200 in early June. Since June 9, however, he's hit .291/.373/.495 (BA/OBP/SLG). Over his past 22 games, he'd been even hotter, hitting .357/.426/.607 and looking like the dominating force we once envisioned from Heyward when he played so well as a rookie in 2010 at age 20.

This recent stretch coincided with manager Fredi Gonzalez moving Heyward to the leadoff spot. While he's certainly an unconventional leadoff hitter in terms of his size -- he stands 6-foot-5 -- Heyward is clearly the best option the Braves have for the position. They have power throughout the lineup but nobody with Heyward's combination of on-base ability and speed. After cycling through Andrelton Simmons and B.J. Upton and Jordan Schafer and Jose Constanza for four games and back to Simmons, Gonzalez finally wised up and turned to Heyward. It's hardly the only reason, but Heyward's production has been a huge reason the team has gone 19-4 since he moved into the leadoff spot.

That leaves Gonzalez with two spots to fill: right field and leadoff hitter. He can try to force Simmons back to the leadoff spot or try Upton there once again. Neither seems like a good option, considering both have sub-.300 on-base percentages. Schafer is back after his own injury problems and presumably will be given a chance, but he's also started only against right-handed pitchers. National League batting leader Chris Johnson would be the out-of-the-box choice, but Gonzalez might not want to mess with what's working, and that's Johnson hitting fifth in the order of late.

Schafer can move into right field, or the Braves could slide Justin Upton back to his old position, with Schafer, Evan Gattis and Joey Terdoslavich taking over left (although Upton sat out Wednesday's game with a back strain). As ESPN Stats & Information writes, no matter the alignment, the Braves' defense is going to take a hit. Heyward won the Gold Glove last year, and deservedly so; he's one of the best right fielders in the game, with outstanding range and a strong arm. Neither Upton brother has graded out as a plus defender this year, and Gattis would be a left fielder in name only.

It's that defense that has made Heyward a much more valuable player than many have credited him as being. After his big rookie season at age 20 in 2010, many projected him as a future MVP. A shoulder injury affected him as a sophomore, and he hit just .227. He rebounded last year to hit .269 with 27 home runs, although without the walk rate he had as a rookie that had stats geeks making comparisons to the best young hitters ever. Still, he earned 5.8 WAR in 2012 and was at 3.0 this season. The injuries this year leave you wondering whether he's going to be a guy who is snakebit, although I would argue no; the appendectomy and Wednesday's beaning were freak things.

The big picture for the Braves is getting Heyward healthy for the division series. It's really pretty simple analysis: They're not as good without him.