JUPITER, Fla. -- The November acquisition of Jason Heyward set off winter-long lineup projections that have trailed the Cardinals to Florida. Manager Mike Matheny doesn't mind, seeing the versatility of his starting position players as something he can exploit to jump-start the offense during inevitable season lulls.
The combinations of who could bat where have, however, already been shaved by one, with Matheny confirming Saturday that he will not open the season with Heyward as his leadoff hitter. That makes it ever more likely that Matt Carpenter will retain his place atop the lineup.
"Right now for us, I want this guy to show up with the freedom to be a ballplayer and not have to conform," Matheny said. "[Heyward] has been very clear that he wasn't comfortable [batting leadoff with the Braves]. We'd be idiots not to at least acknowledge that and say, 'OK, how about you come over into a new situation and we make you as comfortable as you can be as long as it fits with our club?'"
Atlanta started Heyward in the leadoff spot 30 times in 2013 and 94 times a year ago, mostly out of necessity. In response, Heyward adjusted his offensive approach, feeling he needed to fit the mold of a leadoff batter. He posted a career-high .351 on-base percentage and a career-best 6.6 plate appearances per strikeout in 2014 but it cost him power.
A player who in 2012 crushed 27 home runs, had just 11 in almost the exact same number of plate appearances last year. The last two years combined, Heyward has totaled 25 homers.
A change in lineup placement, he hopes, could lead to a change in profile.
"I'm perfectly fine with that," Heyward said of the Cardinals' intent to insert him somewhere lower in the order. "I didn't come up as [a leadoff hitter]. I don't want to be up there trying to do something and not being very good at it. It will be nice to settle in somewhere. It will free me up mentally."
Matheny has consistently urged his players not to become occupied with trying to adopt a new approach because of batting-order decisions, though that message has often taken time to set in. Such was the case a few years ago with Carlos Beltran, who, against the Cardinals' advice, reined in his aggressive approach when moved into the No. 2 hole. Not wanting Heyward to fight the same inward battle, Matheny will just go in a different direction.
"Right now, I want Jason in a good place," Matheny said. "I want him in a good place in his mind. I feel like he's going to fit in around here. He's saying all the right things. ... But I've made it clear to him that we don't need him to be something that he's not."
Heyward was somewhat nomadic when it came to fitting in the Braves' lineup and is excited about the possibility of finally finding some continuity of placement. That could be anywhere from second through sixth. With Atlanta, the 25-year-old Heyward made over 100 starts at three different places in the order and at least 57 from six different places.
Being routinely uprooted, Heyward never felt he found a sense of self. That has left him still seeking a better understanding of his own potential.
"What's ironic is I don't know because I don't feel like I've been given an opportunity to find out," he said. "When I hit 27 [homers in 2012], I started off hitting seventh in the order. I didn't move to hitting third until after the All-Star break that year. I haven't had a real opportunity to settle in in one spot, per se, and definitely haven't had an opportunity to settle in the middle.
"I'm the kind of person that when I do get settled in, I take it and run with it. I still feel like I'm developing. When you ask, 'What do I see out of myself?' I honestly don't know because I haven't had that opportunity. I'm just looking forward to a team that gives opportunities. That's all I can ask for at this point, an opportunity to do whatever it is."