"It just centers around his physical maturity," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said of Hechavarria, who was one of three players optioned to Minor League camp on Wednesday. "He's stronger, his bat speed is noticeably quicker and he's squared the ball up much better than last year.
"He is growing into a man, and a man's strength, and it's showing out on the field."
Hechavarria immediately became one of the Blue Jays' top prospects when he was signed to a $10 million contract in 2010. His explosive quickness in the field and soft hands were arguably Major League ready from the start, but his overall potential at the plate left some lingering questions.
The Santiago De Cuba, Cuba, native hit just .193 during a 41-game debut with Class A Dunedin. He then proceeded to hit .273 in 61 games at Double-A in 2010, but saw that average dip to .235 the following year at the same level.
The inconsistency appeared to hurt his value and led to a drop in the media's annual prospect rankings, but the club never lost faith, and late in the 2011 season, Hechavarria began to turn things around.
Hechavarria hit .389 with two home runs and 11 RBIs in 25 games with Triple-A Las Vegas, but it was his overall approach to each at-bat that generated most of the positive reviews. Extended sessions with hitting coach Chad Mottola had Hechavarria heading to the plate with a game plan as opposed to reacting off every pitch that came his way.
"I thought there were times last year when he wasn't quite sure if he'd go in and hit the first pitch, try to steer the ball to right field," Farrell said. "I think he's understanding of what his capabilities are more than a year ago, and he had a few at-bats where he'd get down in the count 0-2 and work out a walk or find something good to hit."
When Hechavarria signed his first professional contract he was listed at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds. He's now officially listed as being 10 pounds heavier, but likely is even a bit more than that following a rigorous workout routine in the offseason.
The 22-year-old hired a personal trainer in southern Florida, and the positive results have become apparent. The former skinny ballplayer has matured to the point where he is able to start hitting the ball with authority, and the untapped power potential that Toronto also felt like he possesses is starting to show.
"He has a very live athletic type of body that nutritionally probably hadn't had the nutrition that he's getting today," Blue Jays assistant general manager Tony LaCava said. "That certainly plays into it and obviously the weight training that he's done. Couple good nutrition with weight training and the genetics that he has and you see the results of it.
"If you look at his swing, there's no reason why he shouldn't hit. He's got a good swing, he's got the bat speed, now he's got he strength and it's just a matter of him having the right approach. Obviously, that's a work in progress, but he's shown signs of it. Two years ago, his finish in Double-A, I thought, was encouraging, and then last year the finish in Triple-A was very encouraging as well."
There's never been any doubt about Hechavarria's glove. He committed just 11 errors in 428 chances last year with Double-A New Hampshire, and that work alone is what earned him midseason and postseason All-Star nominations in the Eastern League.
Eventually, Toronto will have to make a decision on what to do with its top Cuban prospect. His fellow countryman, Yunel Escobar, is currently manning the shortstop position at the big league level, and there does not appear to be room for both players.
To accommodate that potentially problematic situation, the Blue Jays began having Hechavarria take ground balls at second base. That work will continue at Minor League camp and he will potentially make an occasional start at the position with Las Vegas.
Toronto insists the decision is a temporary one and was made to increase Hechavarria's overall versatility. If Escobar or second baseman Kelly Johnson go down with an injury at some point, then it would allow Hechavarria to make the jump to the big leagues earlier than expected.
But in the long term, the Blue Jays view Hechavarria not only as a shortstop, but one who could potentially win the Gold Glove Award annually.
"He's very gifted defensively," LaCava said. "It starts with his feet, he's got quick feet, good hands, he's got a strong and accurate arm. From a defensive standpoint, we think he's the complete package and a true, true shortstop."