The Atlanta Braves are as active on this year’s trade market as perhaps they've ever been under Frank Wren. Because of that, prospect names like Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and JR Graham are being kicked around the rumor mill like a hacky sack on a college campus
And frankly, why shouldn't they be? It’s common for fans and writers alike to hastily think of what the Braves can get for a prospect rather than what they can get from him.
But trading home grown talent for a proven major leaguer is a dangerous proposition (see Teixeira, Mark), especially when talking about a young man as talented as JR Graham.
Take it from someone who watched, announced, and was wowed by Graham’s nine starts at double-A Mississippi in 2012.
The last Braves prospect to generate this much bullpen buzz was some third-round pick out of an Alabama community college in 2008. And in two short years, that undersized right-hander grew into the larger-than-life prodigy we know as Craig Kimbrel.
Even the most casual baseball fan can see the Graham-Kimbrel similarities in just a few pitches, and Graham has been hearing the parallel since he was a closer at Santa Clara University.
“He was one of the guys I looked up to,” Graham said. “In a closing role, he was so dominant, so it’s cool to be in the same boat getting those comparisons. I can see being similar because we’re both smaller, we both throw hard and we both have pretty good sliders.”
While Graham is listed at 6’0’’, he’ll be the first to tell you he’s actually closer to 5’10’’, which makes him just an inch shorter than Kimbrel’s official listing.
And of course, both have pinpoint command of two pitches: a fastball in the triple digits, and a nasty, hard breaking pitch—though most call Kimbrel’s a “power curve”, whereas Graham’s is more of a pure slider.
To be clear, Kimbrel’s breaking ball is called so many names—a curve by some, a slider by others, and a slurve by more still—because no one in baseball has ever seen a pitch quite like it. With sharp downward break and velocity in the upper 80s, it’s no wonder batters flail after it at a record pace.
So of course, Graham (like countless other pitchers) wants to emulate it.
“I wanted to improve on my slider, and I kept watching games of his,” he said. “It’s something I've tried to change if I have a bigger situation and I need to start striking out people. I've tried to pick up as much as I can on the grip of his slider and watch how he throws it.”
And with a closer like Kimbrel already in place for the foreseeable future, the Braves can afford to give Graham as much time and as many innings as he needs to get the slider down along with a changeup that is still in development.
Since Atlanta picked him up in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, he’s been used almost exclusively as a starter, building his arm strength and getting experience in a variety of game situations.
But make no mistake. Graham walks like a reliever, talks like a reliever, and throws like one of the best relievers in the game. And his likely role at the next level is no secret. He’s just preparing himself for that transition.
“I like to treat starting like nine one-inning saves,” he said. “I try to treat relieving the same way as I do starting, so it’s not really a different mentality for me.”
Comparing minor league numbers, one might be quick to discredit any comparison. After all, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Kimbrel struck out batters at a far greater rate (14.4) during his minor league career than Graham has thus far (7.1).
But that’s the difference between starting and closing. While Kimbrel could put everything he had into each pitch in the ninth inning—he has never made a start, minor league or otherwise—Graham has adapted to his starting role, pitching to contact in order to go deeper into starts.
“But,” he adds, “I do try to strike more guys out when I’m relieving.”
His strikeout numbers have been going up, too. Typically as prospects climb the minor league ladder, their K/9 ratio drops steadily, but not for Graham. In his nine starts at double-A in 2012, he struck out a career high 8.3 per nine innings.
Of course, they’re not yet Kimbrel numbers, largely because what Kimbrel does on the mound eclipses the believable. To find someone to replace him who does it as well or nearly as well is a tall task.
But no player lasts forever, a statement that is especially true at the fickle position of closer. It never hurts to have an insurance policy, and Graham has the stuff and the mental makeup to step into that role whenever the need should arise.
While a blockbuster deal for someone like Justin Upton will certainly require a top-line prospect like JR Graham, I think the price may be far too steep for the reward.
Graham will get his first shot to prove his worth against big league talent this spring as a non-roster invitee to major league camp. It will also be the first time he gets to pick Kimbrel’s brain on how he does what he does.
And you can bet he’ll relish the opportunity to learn from the one he’s looked up to these past few years.
Kyle Tait is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. All quotations in this article were obtained via a phone interview conducted on January 13, 2013.
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