Can Julio Teheran Be Braves' X-Factor in Winning the 2013 NL East?

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Can Julio Teheran Be Braves' X-Factor in Winning the 2013 NL East?
Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Julio Teheran: He's baaaaack...

Julio Teheran is ready for the major leagues. Finally.

The right-hander emerged as one of baseball’s top prospects in 2011, when he was 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA and 122/48 K/BB in 144.2 innings at Triple-A Gwinnett. As a result, the Atlanta Braves anticipated big things from Teheran headed into the 2012 season.

But lofty expectations only led to massive disappointment.

Assigned back to Triple-A following a rocky spring training, Teheran’s second tour of the level was supposed to be only temporary. Instead, it turned into a season-long free-fall for the then-21-year-old.

Convinced that he was tipping his pitches, the Braves addressed the concern by tweaking Teheran’s mechanics. However, the sudden need to make adjustments ripped the right-hander from his comfort zone and shattered his confidence.

In addition to a drop in his fastball velocity, the right-hander struggled to command the pitch to both sides of the plate as he did so effectively in 2011. Equally concerning was that he frequently left it up in the strike zone and over the heart of the plate. Meanwhile, the inability to establish the pitch made his secondary offerings considerably less effective.

In fact, things got so bad that the organization sent pitching-sage Dom Chiti to Gwinnett in early August to work with the once promising prospect. Although he was unable to right the ship, Teheran did register his first sub-5.00 ERA since May.

Overall, he finished the 2012 season with a 5.08 ERA in 131 innings over 26 starts for Gwinnett and allowed a career-high 146 hits and 18 home runs.

However, after reverting back to his original mechanics this offseason in the Dominican Winter League, and thanks to an insightful dinner conversation with Pedro Martinez, the 22-year-old has finally returned to his 2011 form.

More importantly, Teheran is once again oozing with confidence on the mound.

Over four starts this spring, he's registered a 1.29 ERA in 14 innings. And thanks to vastly improved command and sequencing of his entire arsenal, the right-hander has allowed only four hits with 18/4 K/BB thus far.

In terms of his stuff, Teheran’s fastball still hasn’t regained the plus velocity he showcased earlier in his minor league career. Still, it works well at 88-92 mph, while the late arm-side run makes it difficult to barrel. He’s once again throwing the pitch with conviction and aggressively spotting it throughout the strike zone.

As a result, the 22-year-old’s changeup looks as good as ever; his ability to disguise it with fastball-like arm speed, not to mention the pitch’s late fading action, make it his best secondary offering.

While concern over his lack of a legitimate breaking ball has followed Teheran throughout his young career, the hard work he’s put into refining the pitch over the last year is now obvious. Previously regarded as more of a “show me” offering, it now has more depth and a more deceptive pace.

Following the offseason trades of Tommy Hanson (to the Angels) and Randall Delgado (to the Diamondbacks), the stage is set for Teheran to finally assume a spot at the back end of the Braves’ starting rotation. Unlike previous seasons, he has welcomed the organization’s still high expectations and done everything in his power to prove that he’s matured into the pitcher they hoped he’d become.

While his projection as a future ace may not be as accurate as it once seemed, a not-2012-version of Teheran still has the ceiling of a No. 2 or 3 starter in the major leagues. For now, though, he’ll be eased into his first full season in the major leagues as the team’s fifth starter.

In his start on Tuesday, the right-hander no-hit the Cardinals for five innings while registering six strikeouts. If that’s a sign of what’s to come, Teheran may emerge as one of the top rookies in the game.

He’s ready. The Braves are ready.

If there’s ever been a time for Teheran to break through in the major leagues, it’s now.

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