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Heyward, Davis lead sterling class in Year of the Phenom

NEW YORK -- This past weekend at Citi Field, a pair of rookies, one the most talked about prospect in the game, the other a recent call-up who has already been causing a stir in his first week, crossed paths for the first time on a major league field. In a season that is looking like it will be the Year of the Phenom, both Ike Davis of the Mets and Jason Heyward of the Braves have been turning heads and earning rave reviews from their managers not only for how they play but also for how they handle themselves.

"He's a very confident and comfortable young man at this level,'' Mets manager Jerry Manuel said of the 23-year-old Davis. "He doesn't seem to play with the anxiety of a young person playing in the major leagues for the first time.''

"He's a great kid,'' Braves skipper Bobby Cox said of the 20-year-old Heyward. "His makeup is off the charts.''

Heyward also stands out for his remarkable calm. While others have compared him to Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell and Ken Griffey Jr., he remains unfazed. "I don't have any expectations,'' he said. "I just intend to be patient and take what the game gives me.''

One scout has called Heyward "the best prospect I've seen in decades." On Sunday, Cox praised his baserunning ability by saying, "He has big-time instincts. He has some larceny in him.'' Keep in mind that those comments came from a level-headed future Hall of Famer who's seen it all and has every reason to keep expectations down. And they come, too, with Heyward having exactly zero stolen bases.

Heyward was programmed to be a star from the start, as his father, Eugene, a former Dartmouth basketball player, molded him to be a major leaguer while eschewing all other sports. But there has been no sign of any of the potential pratfalls associated with such single-mindedness.

Some have said the buildup is too much, the hype too high for Heyward. But everyone from baseball lifers like Cox to scouts to sportswriters have been raving about him. Veteran Troy Glaus is one of the rare people tempering his comments about Heyward. "He's got a good head on his shoulders, he's got all the ability and he's doing a great job,'' Glaus said. "But let the kid get his feet wet. He's got 50 at-bats.''

To be precise, Heyward has 59 at-bats, but they've been pretty productive ones. He has four home runs and 16 RBIs for the offensively inept Braves (see below). But he also has 23 strikeouts, including at least one in each of the last eight games before the rain-shortened 1-0 defeat Sunday night to the rival Mets. Cox acknowledged pitchers are making early adjustments to beat him and now it's Heyward's turn to adjust. It's a "cat and mouse game'' Glaus said.

Pitchers may soon have to adjust to Davis as well, who had a stellar first week in which he batted .318 with a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage. Going into the season, Davis was ranked as merely the seventh best first-base prospect by Baseball America, behind Texas' just-promoted Justin Smoak, Florida's Logan Morrison, Toronto's Brett Wallace, Oakland's Chris Carter, Atlanta's Freddie Freeman and Cincinnati's Yonder Alonso, and just ahead of Boston's Lars Anderson. A Mets official, upon Davis' call-up last week, cautioned against raising expectations. Referring to Heyward, the official said of Davis, "He's not that kind of prospect.''

You can't tell that to Mets fans now, not after Davis started his career by excelling at the plate and helping the Mets to six wins in his first seven games. He also powered his first big league home run on Friday, 450 feet to the faraway Citi bridge in right-center field. "I've only seen one other player hit it there and that was Carlos Delgado,'' one NL scout said. "But one difference between the two is this: Davis can really play first base.

Davis said he couldn't be sure it was the farthest ball he's ever hit since he said he swings hard every time and has connected that sweetly a few times before. But he didn't seem too concerned about it. Davis, the son of former Yankees relief star Ron Davis, has impressed in the clubhouse with an unassuming manner. He said he held no illusions his big spring would land him on the team, fully understood the Mets' call to go with the more experienced Mike Jacobs and wasn't expecting to be anything beyond "maybe a September call-up."

With Davis already in the majors, and already thriving, Manuel and the Mets brass have reason to be excited, though they aren't getting ahead of themselves. "He's smooth, he's rhythmic, he has soft hands and he really gets extended when he hits -- so that means power,'' Manuel said. "The test will come when he goes around [the league] a couple times.''

Mets fans eager for a new hero aren't going to wait that long. They are already crediting Davis for the Mets' sudden hot streak that has them back above .500 for the first time since Opening Day. But Davis' ascension happened to come shortly after the return of the team's most important player, shortstop Jose Reyes, plus Manuel's prescient decision to switch from Gary Matthews Jr. to Angel Pagan in center field. A Mets official said the team's "energy'' returned the same time Reyes did. But the fans, perhaps wary of all the injured Mets, seem to view Davis as nearly as important a figure.

While Mets people were guarding against the label of "savior'' being applied, nobody sees any sign the attention is going to Davis' head. "He's got all the tools, there's no question about it,'' David Wright said. "But the best thing about him is he hasn't bought into all the hype surrounding his call-up. That's more impressive than what he's done on the field.''

Heyward and Davis are far from the only young stars drawing praise in a year that may wind up being recalled for its sterling rookie class, even if not all the best ones have reached the majors yet.

The Nationals' Stephen Strasburg, last year's No. 1 overall drat choice, has been overpowering at Double-A Harrisburg, going 2-0 with a 0.73 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings. Washington GM Mike Rizzo cautiously warned that Strasburg wasn't ready when he kept him off the major league roster toward the end of spring training, but everyone figures he will be up with the big club by June 1, after three to four starts each at both Double-A and Triple-A. The Nationals plan to have Strasburg throw around 130 innings this year, with about two-thirds of them coming at the big-league level, assuming he continues his minor-league domination.

The Reds' Cuban import Aroldis Chapman has also been terrific so far, though he probably doesn't have the maturity of some of the other phenoms. Legend has it he complained about the early bids for him, telling people that if he wasn't going to get $60 million for his troubles that maybe he should have stayed in Cuba, a legend that was verified by someone who knows him well. Nonetheless, Chapman has a 0.60 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 15 innings at Triple-A Louisville, numbers that could at least tempt the Reds to bring him up, considering how poorly their rotation has fared thus far. Chapman has been so dominant early that he's evoking comparisons to a young Randy Johnson.

There is a temptation, even a danger, in making such declarations. As Glaus pointed out, there's a very good reason the great prospects are often still compared to Mickey Mantle, and it's because no one has come along in "50 some years'' to top Mantle in terms of talent. As talented as Heyward is, he's not Mickey Mantle.

At least, not yet.

Cox didn't even bother to speak to shortstop Yunel Escobar about Escobar's failure to tag up and score on a long flyball with one out late in Saturday's game. Cox's thinking appears to be something along the lines of: what's the use?

"What are you going to ask him?'' Cox said. "We have done a lot of talking [in the past].''

The Braves, as currently constructed, can't afford to make these kind of mistakes. While they possess one of the better and best-balanced rotations in the game, there are all sorts of offensive questions.

Cox has yet to settle on a leadoff hitter, and it's no wonder, what with all the likely candidates, from Melky Cabrera (.153) to Nate McLouth (.146) to Escobar (.188), struggling. Alluding to the fact other teams have similar issues, Cox said, "If you can find Rickey Henderson out there, let me know.''

Still, the Braves' hitting issues go deeper than that. They are batting .228 as a team. There's some heat on hitting coach Terry Pendleton, causing Cox to launch into a characteristic defense of his former player and longtime coach.

"The worst person to blame for a team not hitting is the hitting coach,'' Cox said. "We all feel bad. We're not hitting that bad. It's just that when we get 'em on, we're not getting 'em in ... That's the hardest job in the world. Terry's a very good hitting coach, very good.''

Another issue facing the Braves is that Chipper Jones is hurt again, while also warding off one very credible critic and struggling defensively. But credit Jones for toughing out a sore hip to play on the muddy field in New York on Sunday.

"We can't afford for me to be sitting out,'' Jones explained. "I've got to be in there. We've got to try to get this turned around.'' Jones admitted, though, that if a left-hander was facing the Braves, his sore hip probably would not have allowed him to play.

Jones continues to be dogged by injuries, which caused his former teammate Brian Jordan to opine that perhaps Jones should work out more. Of course, Jordan was hurt a lot, and he was always working out. But he may have a point with Jones, who once pulled something while I was interviewing him (he was pulling up his socks at the time, you can look it up). Jones expressed surprise to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at Jordan's remarks.

Jones' bigger worry lately may be his defense. While he can still hit OK, he was atrocious at third base in the series against the Mets. He dropped one popup, let another almost hit him in the foot and made a throwing error on a ball he never should have thrown. Cox said he wasn't concerned about Jones' defense, pointing out that before Jones' threw the ball away he had "made a great play catching the damn ball'' in the first place. And Jones attributed his short throw to his hand being "completely mud,'' a reasonable excuse under the circumstances.

Jones is surely a Hall of Fame player, and he should be credited for his toughness. But at times he seems slightly imperfect as a clubhouse leader. One day in spring training I saw him spend the better part of an hour complaining about possibly having to make the trip from Lake Buena Vista, Fla., to Bradenton. Of course he wasn't really on the trip to Bradenton, anyway, but that didn't deter him. It went on so long that veteran journeyman Eric Hinske finally piped up and told him, "Stop it, you haven't been to Port St. Lucie in 12 years.''

• Orioles manager Dave Trembley can't have very good job security now that his team is a big league-worst 3-16. In fact, it's a shocker he retained his employment following the Orioles' brutal finish to the 2009 season after team president Andy MacPhail had said the team needed to show improvement.

• There is still said to be up to a $50 million difference between Tom Hicks and Chuck Greenberg in the negotiations to sell the Texas Rangers from the former to the latter, and folks are getting more pessimistic about it. Of course, the alternatives of bankruptcy and MLB taking over the team aren't good for anyone.

• The Padres should be commended for leading the NL West with a team as anonymous as you're going to find. Wade LeBlanc looks like he might make an effective left-hander after a fine start to the season (1-0, 0.82 ERA in two starts) following a great spring.

Mike Pelfrey's scoreless streak is now 24 innings after he beat the Braves 1-0 in a rain-shortened five-inning game. Amazin' (with an assist to Harvey Dorfman).

• Atlanta has now lost five straight and Cox rejected the idea that it's early, saying, "We've got to buck that real quick.''

• It isn't far-fetched to think the Red Sox could be seeking catching help with their backstops throwing out only two of the first 39 would-be basestealers. Boston's emphasis on defense disregarded the catching position, where Victor Martinez has seemingly regressed from slightly below average to far less than that. If V-Mart does some DHing, that could also affect David Ortiz, whose slump has put his spot in jeopardy

Jeff Suppan, a $42 million bust, was finally demoted by the Brewers to the bullpen after two-plus years of weak performance.

• The Rays got a deal when Ben Zobrist accepted a contract with two club options at the back end. The trend has been for players who have yet to make millions to take deals favorable to the clubs. The St. Petersburg Times pointed out that Zobrist was a .222 hitter going into last year. But now he is the No. 3 hitter on perhaps the best team in baseball.

• The memorial for Rockies president Keli McGregor was said to be very emotional. McGregor, 48, left four kids. A former NFL player who was a walk-on at Colorado State, he had recently complained of headaches before being found dead in his Salt Lake City hotel room last week.

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