The modern success of the Atlanta Braves has been founded on outstanding starting pitching and the team's farm system has no intention of letting that tradition die out any time soon, as each of the team's top 4 right handed starting pitching prospects is a legitimate candidate to be the team's top prospect.
1. Julio Teheran: B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'2", Wt: 175, DOB: 1-27-91
Teheran has been a top prospect since the Braves signed him out of Colombia in 2007, and after a stellar 2011 that saw him earn International League Pitcher Of The Year and Rookie Of The Year with AAA Gwinnett by going 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 3 BB/9, and 2.5 BB/K in 144.2 innings over 25 games, he seemed poised to earn a permanent spot in Atlanta's rotation in 2012. Things didn't go as planned, as Teheran was beaten out for the 5th starter's job by fellow rookie Randall Delgado and then struggled in his return to Gwinnett, going 7-9 with a 5.08 ERA, a 1.44 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 3 BB/9, and 2.3 K/BB in 131 innings over 26 starts.
Teheran's 2012 struggles can be directly linked to the Braves attempting to smooth out some mechanical flaws in his delivery. His delivery involved a coiling of his body that caused his back plant leg to bend, bringing all of his limbs toward his torso in a coil position before he sprang and released toward the plate. The Braves have worked with him to keep that back leg straighter, which will put less strain on his knee, put more power over his center of balance, and lead to a lowered chance of injury and, once he becomes accustomed to the delivery improved velocity. His original delivery was a byproduct of his smallish frame, as the coiling allowed him to produce power in an unnatural way, that would have led to elbow tendonitis, and probably the need for Tommy John Surgery. The team believes the subtle changes will allow him to be just as effective while putting less strain on his arm.
Obviously, the delivery changes adversely affected Teheran's performance this year, though by the end of the season he seemed to have adjusted, turning in vintage performances in 3 of his final 4 starts with Gwinnett. The biggest difference in his numbers was in the number of hits he allowed, up from 7.7 H/9 in 2011 to 10 H/9 in 2012, and how hard he was hit, allowing 1.2 HR/9 this season after allowing a miniscule 0.3 HR/9 in 2011. His strikeouts, walks, and strikeouts per walk were nearly identical to last year, meaning he was able to maintain control this year despite losing power cause by the delivery change, a good sign, especially if the way he finished the year was a sign that he'd become comfortable with the new delivery.
Teheran will still be just 22 years old at the beginning of the 2013 season, and while it seems like he's been around forever, he's still pitched just 26 innings in the Major Leagues. The Braves would love for him to come out and have an amazing Spring Training and force his way into the rotation, but if that doesn't happen, they'll have no problem with sending him back to Gwinnett again for more seasoning. Some have questioned Teheran's desire, but he is a smart, determined pitcher who has done everything the organization has asked of him, and done it with a smile. He is an eminently talented player and a natural leader, and he will very soon be a mainstay in Atlanta's rotation.
2. Lucas Sims: B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'2", Wt: 195, DOB: 5-10-94
The Braves returned to their tradition of drafting local high school players in the first round by plucking Sims, who grew up a Braves fan, idolizing John Smoltz, out of Gwinnett County with the 21st overall pick this year. The 18 year old got his professional career off to a great start in the Gulf Coast League by allowing 2 earned runs over 7 innings, striking out 10 and walking 1, in 3 starts, then the Braves challenged him by moving him up to Rookie level Danville where he struggled a bit, posting a 2-4 record, a 4.33 ERA, a 1.41 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 4 BB/9, and 2.4 K/BB in 27 innings over 8 starts.
Sims is a classic power pitcher, utilizing his big, strong frame to generate a fastball that sits in the mid 90s and often touches 97. He compliments it with a low 80s diving power slider and a solid curve that tumbles in at the low 70s. Those three pitchers are consistently above average, and he's working on developing a changeup to complement that arsenal. He has a no-quit mentality and is a natural competitor. He has a smooth, solid arm action and delivery that makes him an ideal innings eater.
The Braves believe they selected another homegrown star in Sims, and they were pleased with the early results, particularly with how he dominated the GCL and forced the team to promote him. He'll still only be 18 years old when he begins the 2013 season in Rome's rotation, likely working in tandem with another young starter. Expect him to take some time to develop, but Sims has a very bright future ahead of him.
3. Mauricio Cabrera: B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'2", Wt: 180, DOB: 9-22-93
The Braves were excited when they were able to sign Cabrera out of the Dominican Republic and weren't discouraged by his debut season in the Dominican Summer League in 2011, where he had a 1-5 record, a 4.30 ERA, a 1.43 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, and 1.5 K/BB in 52.1 innings over 19 games, 9 starts. He was impressive enough during Extended Spring Training this year that he skipped over the GCL and made his US debut with Danville, posting a 2-2 record, a 2.97 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 2.1 K/BB, and 57.2 innings over 12 starts.
Cabrera is a typical Dominican flamethrower, using his big, strong frame to power a high 90s fastball. He was regularly hitting 96-98 deep in his starts this season. His secondary pitches, a slider and a changeup, aren't as advanced as his fastball, but they're still strong pitches. Like most foreign players, Cabrera is raw when it comes to the mental side of pitching, and as he advances up the organizational ladder he's going to have to learn the ins and outs of being a professional and pitching to scouting reports instead of getting by on superior stuff.
Cabrera will join Rome's rotation in 2013 as a 19 year old and he'll look to build on his excellent 2012 season. It will take some time as he develops from a thrower into a pitcher, but he looks like a good bet to become yet another great find for the Braves international scouting department.
4. JR Graham: B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'0", Wt: 185, DOB: 1-14-90
The Braves appear to have gotten a steal by plucking Graham in the 4th round in 2011 out of Santa Clara. He had a dominant debut season with Danville, posting a 5-2 record, a 1.72 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 2 BB/9, and 4 K/BB in 57.2 innings over 13 appearances, 8 starts, and he picked up right where he left off this season, opening the year by going 9-1 with a 2.63 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP, 6 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, and 4 K/BB in 102.2 innings in 17 starts for Lynchburg. Even a July promotion to Mississippi didn't slow him down, as he put up a 3-1 record, a 3.18 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, and 2.5 K/BB in 45.1 innings over 9 AA starts. His overall 2012 season line, a 12-2 record, a 2.80 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, and 3.2 K/BB in 148 innings over 26 starts, was by far the best of any Braves farmhand.
Teams likely ignored Graham in the draft due to his size, his 6'0" listing is slightly generous, but he has a strong, thick body that generates a ton of power in his delivery. His fastball regularly sits between 93 and 96, though he has the ability to rare back and hit 100 with it. The fastball is by far his best pitch, but his mid 80s slider is a solid second pitch and his changeup keeps getting better. Graham's work ethic and drive set him apart from other prospects. He's constantly working on improving his game, both physically and mentally, continually asking for extra coaching and direction. That mentality transfers over to the mound, where he is unflappable.
As a prospect, Graham is about as sure a bet to become a successful Major Leaguer as you can find. Even if the Braves don't decide he has a future in the rotation, he can move to the bullpen, where his fastball would hit 100 more often, a tool that could make him a future closer, but his dominance as a starter to this point in his career means the Braves will give him every chance to remain in the rotation. He'll be 23 to begin next season, and his success at AA in 2012 combined with a good Spring Training could land him in Gwinnett's rotation to begin the year.. Even if he ends up back in Mississippi to start the season, there's a very real chance he could be pitching important innings for Atlanta by the end of the year.
5. Zeke Spruill: B: S, T: R, Ht: 6'5", Wt: 190, DOB: 9-11-89
Spruill is the last man standing of the Braves top high school pitching trio from the 2008 draft, as both Brett DeVall and Tyler Stovall were released before the 2011 season. Not that he hasn't had his own ups and downs in his career, including getting suspended for disciplinary issues in 2009 and breaking his hand punching a wall in 2010, but as he's grown up he's matured and become a solid and dependable member of the organization, turning in a fine 2012 season with Mississippi, putting up a 9-11 record, a 3.67 ERA, a 1.26 WHIP, 5.9 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, and 2.3 K/BB in a league leading 161.2 innings over 27 starts.
Possessing a classic build the Braves have always looked for, shoulders that resemble a coat hanger, Spruill has been a workhorse over the years, consistently among the organization leaders in innings pitched. His stuff is average, a low 90s fastball combined with a changeup and a slider, but he gets the most out of his arsenal with an intense mound presence and a solid game plan, allowing the hitters to make contact and put the ball in play, trusting his defense to work behind him.
Spruill will move up to Gwinnett as a 23 year old in 2013 and he's likely to have another solid, innings eating season. With his youthful indiscretions behind him, he's become something of an organizational metronome, and it's easy to see him becoming a Major League contributor in the near future, either as a solid back of the rotation starter, or as a reliable, durable reliever. He may never become a star, but with his build and mentality, he seems destined for a long, solid career.