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Expectations continue to rise for Braves Heyward
Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward waits to take batting practice during spring training baseball practice, Tuesday, in Kissimmee, Fla. - photo by The Associated Press

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The comparisons already are out of control for Atlanta Braves prospect Jason Heyward.

Chipper Jones said the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Heyward looks like former Braves first baseman Fred McGriff, only bigger.

Eric Hinske said Heyward hits line drives like Cliff Floyd.

Leave it to manager Bobby Cox to trump those comparisons.

Cox says the ball sounds different coming off Heyward's bat. It's a familiar sound, but one Cox says he has not heard in a long time.

"There's a little sound off the bat," Cox said. "His line drives are kind of like ol' Hank Aaron's sound."

Heyward, widely regarded as the top prospect in baseball, has heard plenty of compliments, but it's a little different to be mentioned with a Hall of Famer who retired as the career home run king.

"That's cool. That's an awesome comparison," Heyward said.

Cox quickly acknowledged that Heyward, who has played in only 50 games above Class A, shouldn't be grouped with Aaron. But it was almost as if Cox couldn't help himself.

"We don't want to put him in that class yet, but same sound," Cox said.

Cox said he's not worried about Heyward, only 20, handling the attention he will receive if he wins the starting job in right field.

"Heyward is going to do all the right things," Cox said Wednesday. "He's got one of those quiet egos."

Heyward, from Henry County High School south of Atlanta, was named baseball's top prospect by Baseball America, and after he hit a combined .323 with 17 homers and 63 RBIs at Class-A Myrtle Beach, Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett.

Heyward's visit to Gwinnett was brief; he was 4 for 11 in three games at the end of the season.

Cox and general manager Frank Wren say they are not worried about rushing Heyward. The Braves have enjoyed success while allowing such players as Andruw Jones, Rafael Furcal, Brian McCann and Tommy Hanson to make similarly quick ascents to the major leagues.

"It reminds me very much of my very first spring training with the Braves in 2000 when we came into spring training with a kid out of A-ball, Rafael Furcal," Wren said. "He came into spring training and never left. He kept showing us that he belongs and he became a difference-maker on our ballclub."

McCann, now a four-time All-Star catcher, skipped Triple-A when he was called up in 2005. Hanson made only 11 starts at Gwinnett before he finished third in last year's NL Rookie of the Year voting.

It seems the right field job is Heyward's to lose. Heyward is the reason the team made only a modest offer to Johnny Damon before Damon signed with Detroit.

"We were never real aggressive in going after Johnny Damon because we do like the way our club lines up," Wren said. "If that was a case where it was the right situation, we'd have been very interested in having Johnny Damon, but we didn't think it was a move that would make a big difference for our club."

The Braves already have a Damon-like player in Nate McLouth, the projected leadoff hitter and center fielder. The team needs a power-hitting outfielder. Cox and Wren hope Heyward fills the void.

The left-handed hitting Heyward caused a stir with his first batting practice of the spring on Tuesday.

One of his long home runs over the right-field wall hit a soft drink truck with a loud clang. Another drive cleared the right-field wall and bullpen before smashing through the sun roof of assistant general manager Bruce Manno's car in a parking lot.

"I never try to see how far I can hit it," Heyward said. "If I hit a ball far in BP, that's just a part of my swing. I'm a line-drive guy and that's how I try to hit a ball. Anything that comes off a line drive is great."

Manno's car was being repaired Wednesday when Heyward hit an even longer homer over the yellow wall that stands behind the parking lot.

"You cleared the wall!" an incredulous Hinske announced to Heyward.

"Against the wind," Cox noted later with a smile.

Hinske, Joe Thurston and J.C. Boscan hit in the same group with Heyward. There was a good-natured debate about the order they would hit. Clearly, no one wanted to hit behind Heyward and suffer the comparisons.

"I'm hitting fourth," Heyward said.

No one argued. It seemed to be a good fit.