One of the pitfalls of not spending overslot in the draft, at least prior to the inception of the slot system in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, is it becomes harder to add high-upside talent to the farm system.
For the Atlanta Braves, the international market has been their saving grace over the years. The current front office regime believes that the best course of action for the draft is to go after low-cost, low-ceiling players who can move quickly through the system.
Yet even with all those flaws, the Braves find themselves in a great position to compete for a championship this season after nearly making the postseason two years ago and winning a Wild Card spot last year.
The acquisition of Justin Upton did cost the Braves prospects—but no one they will really miss that much.
Here is a complete overview of the Braves' farm system heading into 2013, the top prospects in the system, who could make an impact in Atlanta this season and who could emerge as a star in the system by the end of the year.
Note: All stats and ages courtesy of MiLB.com unless otherwise noted
No. 1 Julio Teheran, Starting Pitcher
26 G (26 starts), 7-9, 5.08 ERA, 131.0 IP, 146 H, 81 R (74 ER), 18 HR, 43 BB, 97 K (Triple A)
2 G (1 start), 0-0, 5.68 ERA, 6.1 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 5 K
Teheran has been at the top of the Braves' prospect list for three years running. But his stock has started to slide thanks to poor performances in the higher levels of the minors and, more importantly stalled development.
He can still bring a mid 90s-fastball, but it is very straight and easy to hit when he leaves it up in the zone. His changeup still has the makings of a plus pitch and gives him the weapon he needs to get lefties out.
However, the lack of consistency with his release and inability to command the curveball is holding him back. His delivery is clean and easy, though the ball is easy to see coming out of his hands. If he can develop even an average breaking pitch, he still looks like a No. 2 starter. The odds of him becoming the No. 1 he looked like two years ago are slim.
No. 2 J.R. Graham, Starting Pitcher
17 G (17 starts), 9-1, 2.63 ERA, 102.2 IP, 88 H, 34 R (30 ER), 6 HR, 17 BB, 68 K (High A)
9 G (9 starts), 3-1, 3.18 ERA, 45.1 IP, 35 H, 17 R (16 ER), 2 HR, 17 BB, 42 K (Double A)
Even though Teheran has more upside, Graham is probably a safer bet to reach his ceiling at the big league level. He has an impressive arsenal, which includes a mid-90s fastball, sinker, average slider and changeup.
The sinker is what will carry Graham. He has plus velocity on his fastball but the sinker is what he goes to when he needs to get an out. He allowed just eight home runs in 148 innings last season because the pitch moves so much and it is so difficult to elevate.
Graham also has terrific command. His delivery is very simple and easy without a lot of moving parts. He could earn a spot in the rotation at some point this season if Teheran struggles and he continues to excel in Double A.
No. 3 Lucas Sims, Starting Pitcher
Age: 18 (Turns 19 on May 10)
3 G (3 starts), 0-0, 1.29 ERA, 7.0 IP, 2 H, 2 R (1 ER), 1 HR, 1 BB, 10 K (Rookie)
8 G (8 starts), 2-4, 4.33 ERA, 27.0 IP, 26 H, 14 R (13 ER), 2 HR, 12 BB, 29 K (Rookie)
Sims was the Braves' first-round pick in the 2012 Draft. He played right in their backyard, and the team has a knack for keeping Georgia products close to home.
There are still mechanical issues that Sims has to work out in his delivery, as he tends not to finish his pitches and loses control. But he is just 18 years old, so it is not a huge problem at this point.
At 6'2", Sims will likely continue to add muscle as his frame fills out and could see an increase in velocity on his fastball, which already sits in the low 90s. His curveball is more advanced than you would expect for someone his age, giving him a leg up on the competition.
He has the upside of a No. 2 starting pitcher but is years away from getting there.
No. 4 Mauricio Cabrera, Starting Pitcher
12 G (12 starts), 2-2, 2.97 ERA, 57.2 IP, 45 H, 23 R (19 ER), 2 HR, 23 BB, 48 K (Rookie)
Cabrera has the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the system, with the possible exception of Teheran. He is also the furthest away from realizing it, so there is extreme risk involved.
However, if Cabrera can iron out a few big holes he has, the sky is the limit for how high he can climb. He already has a mid-90s fastball and a good slider that projects to be a swing-and-miss pitch in the future. His changeup already looks like a plus offering.
As with most young pitchers, the biggest issue has been the command of all his pitches. He is still more of a thrower than pitcher, so it will take time before he becomes one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. The raw tools are there for him to reach that ceiling.
No. 5 Christian Bethancourt, Catcher
71 G, .243/.275/.291, 65 H, 5 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 26 RBI, 11 BB, 45 K, 8 SB (Double A)
Bethancourt has all the tools to be an elite defender behind the plate. He has an incredible, accurate arm, quick release and some of the fastest pop times you will ever see. In five minor-league seasons, he has thrown out 38 percent of base-stealers (via Baseball Reference).
He has reportedly had pop times clocked in the 1.8-second range, where anything around 2.0 is considered average. His blocking and receiving skills are terrific, though he still has young moments when he tries to use his glove to stop bad pitches instead of his body.
If he could just play defense, he would be one of the best catchers in baseball. Unfortunately you have to hit too, and it doesn't seem likely that Bethancourt will do a lot of that.
He does have some hitting tools, like above-average raw power, but his approach at the plate is so bad he is never able to show it. If he could find some semblance of pitch recognition to hit an empty .270 in the big leagues, he would play everyday.
Years of graduations, poor drafts and some players whose stocks have been sliding as they have moved up the ladder have taken their toll on the system. There is some depth here, but the impact is lacking.
Top prospect Julio Teheran no longer looks the part of an elite starter. He has been on everyone's radar for years, despite the fact that he just turned 22 years old in January. The lack of consistency with his curveball and knack for leaving the fastball up in the zone have hurt him.
Beyond Teheran, there are plenty of arms who could slot into the rotation. Sean Gilmartin doesn't have much of a ceiling, looking like a back-end innings eater, but he could get the call in 2013 if the need arises.
First-round pick Lucas Sims is years away from being a big leaguer, but he does have the potential to be a very good No. 3 starter in the future. J.R. Graham doesn't miss a lot of bats, though his fastballs move so much that he could turn into an above-average starter and ground-ball machine.
The position player side of things is much more of a crap shoot. Christian Bethancourt could turn into one of the best defensive catchers in baseball if he gets enough playing time, but his bat is a HUGE question mark right now.
Evan Gattis is 26 and might as well get a shot if needed at some point, just to see what he can really do.
What will 2013 have in store for Julio Teheran?
There are a few options to choose from here, all starting pitchers: Julio Teheran, Sean Gilmartin and J.R. Graham.
Teheran has the most upside of the three. He will likely end up starting the season in Triple A and has to prove he can keep the ball down in the zone enough to avoid giving up home runs.
Graham has yet to play in Triple A, so the Braves might be inclined to get him some experience there before seriously considering him for a call-up.
Gilmartin pitched in seven Triple-A games last season, posting a 4.78 ERA in 38 innings. He is the most polished of the three pitchers and would likely have the most immediate success, though the margin for error with him is so small because the stuff is so average.
Ultimately, since we are talking about impact, Teheran gets the slight edge over Graham. He is still one of the 15 best pitching prospects in the game and has a good fastball-changeup combination that can give him an advantage over teams before they get film and advanced scouting reports on him.
Even if the curveball never develops like we thought it would a year or two ago, Teheran still has enough stuff, control and poise to be a good No. 2 starter somewhere down the line.
Shortstop Jose Peraza won't turn 19 until April, so he is a long way away. But if you are looking for a potential impact player who can take the next step and be a potential Top 100 prospect next season, he is the player for you.
Since defense is the first thing you look at with a shortstop, it is logical to start there with Peraza. He has all the raw skills necessary to be an above-average or better defender, with a plus arm, range and good hands.
The problem Peraza has is when he tries to throw the ball. He tends to let his arm do all the work and doesn't set up his body, which causes many more erroneous throws that you can live with. Youth is still on his side, so it's not a huge concern right now.
As an offensive player, as Bill Ballew of Baseball America (subscribers only) notes, Peraza "relishes the role of leadoff hitter, looking to get on base by any means necessary."
He has the tools to do that, as well. Peraza has plus bat speed and a keen eye at the plate, allowing him to make contact and not strike out as much as you would expect from a player as young as he is (just 24 times in 206 at-bats last season).
Peraza also has very good speed and knows how to use it on the basepaths. He does not have a lot of power projection because of his slight frame and compact swing, but if he can get on base and the throwing mechanics improve, he will be a very good everyday player.
The Braves have a big season ahead of them. There are sky-high expectations for the big league team, especially after acquiring the Upton Brothers and boosting their already-deep bullpen with the acquisition of Jordan Walden.
It is also a big year down on the farm, as the Braves have a lot of questions they need to find answers for. Julio Teheran is the biggest question mark. Will he figure out the issues that plagued him last year and turn into the No. 1 starter he appeared destined to be?
The starting pitching depth at the top of the system is strong, though a lot of the players will likely be No. 4 or 5 starters at their peaks.
Finding an everyday position player would be a huge step forward for this team right now. There are certainly players with the tools to be at that level, though they are either too young to have proved it or have a fatal flaws that are holding them back.