Last offseason, Braves outfield prospect Robby Hefflinger had a unique experience, traveling to Panama to play in a winter league with teammates William Beckwith and Caleb Brewer.
Hefflinger credited that experience with his breakout performance in Class A Advanced Lynchburg this summer, and this offseason, he's ventured to the Arizona Fall League hoping a similar experience will give him a jumpstart when he likely returns to Double-A Mississippi in 2014.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound outfielder was the hero for Scottsdale Saturday, driving in three, including a pair of go-ahead runs, in an 12-7 win over the Peoria Javelinas. The Buford, Ga., native finished 1-for-4, putting his AFL batting average at .269.
Hefflinger's first go-ahead RBI came in the first inning. The right-handed hitter stepped in with the bases loaded and delivered a double to center, snapping a scoreless tie with two RBIs and a third run that scored after a fielding error by Peoria's Delino DeShields. DeShields is Houston's No. 7 prospect and has been transitioning from second base to center field in the AFL.
The double came off a first-pitch breaking ball from Peoria starter Kyle Hunter that hung in the bottom half of the strike zone. Hefflinger said he wasn't necessarily looking for a breaking ball, and thinks his abilities to square up curveballs and sliders can vary.
"It depends on the day," he said. "Some days, it feels good. Other days, you look like an idiot. I was just going back to being ready to hit from 0-0 on."
The 23-year-old Braves prospect snapped a second tie in the seventh inning, driving an inside fastball from Alex Sogard to right field for a sacrifice fly and a 5-4 advantage. The Scorpions held the lead for the rest of the game, thanks in part to a six-run eighth inning that extended the spread to 11-4.
Hefflinger was a seventh round pick by the Braves out of Georgia Perimeter Community College in 2009, about a 15-minute drive from Turner Field. The outfielder has slowly worked his way up the Minor League ladder, solving the Class A Advanced Carolina League this summer in his third stint on the circuit. In 74 games, he hit .286 with 21 homers and a .917 OPS.
The showing earned him a midseason promotion to Double-A Mississippi, where he hit .170 with six homers and a .546 OPS in 53 games.
Despite the lackluster showing in the Southern League, Hefflinger's season was an encouraging one, especially with his combined 27 home runs. The slugger credited the early success to his experience in Panama, and noted that his time in the AFL may prove more valuable from a baseball standpoint.
"Here, obviously, there's a lot better competition," he said. "You have guys that are high prospects from all organizations.
"It's a good experience coming out here and seeing what Major League caliber players are like and seeing the kind of pitching you'll hopefully one day see in the big leagues. This experience is a lot more beneficial to my career than what I did last winter."
As beneficial as the winter league experience was last year, Hefflinger said the AFL will be his last baseball action until Spring Training.
"Once I'm done here, I'll be sitting in the deer stand," he said.
Hefflinger's RBI chances Saturday came behind stellar games from Scottsdale's first three hitters - Pittsburgh's No. 3 prospect Alen Hanson, Braves prospect Elmer Reyes and Mets prospect Cory Vaughn went a combined 9-for-15 with eight runs and seven RBIs. Hanson had three hits, Reyes had four and Vaughn had two hits with a walk, three RBIs and a stolen base.