It was easy to understand why Jason Heyward escaped a frustrating 2011 season with motivation to alter his swing and dedicate himself to an intense conditioning program. His decision to remain dedicated to this rigorous program after an impressive 2012 season simply enhanced visions of him living up to his tremendous potential.

"I think Jason knows what he wants and what he wants to do," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He wants to play this game a long time and be successful. You can really see over the past years the maturity that he has gained. It wouldn't surprise me if he emerged as one of the leaders of the clubhouse, if he's not already there."

Two weeks after the Braves suffered their season-ending loss to the Cardinals in the National League's one-game Wild Card playoff, Heyward resumed the running and lifting programs that helped him shed 20 pounds between the 2011 and '12 seasons. His efforts this past winter simply added some muscle to an athletic frame that would certainly draw the attention of football's talent evaluators.

When Hank Aaron arrived at Braves Spring Training and saw the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Heyward, he said, "My God. Whew!"

It seems sacrilegious and ridiculous to compare any 23-year-old player to Aaron. But as Heyward rises toward greatness while occupying the same right-field position Aaron manned for two decades with the Braves, it is impossible not to draw a link.

Through their first three full seasons, Heyward and Aaron totaled an identical 428 games.