Atlanta Braves: 5 Prospects at Spring Training That the Braves Can Build Around
The Atlanta Braves have a rich tradition of developing home-grown talent. It is a practice that has played a major role in the club's winning ways over the past two decades.
Consider the draft picks and astute trades that have brought top young talent into the pipeline. Chipper Jones, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, David Justice and Andruw Jones are a few select examples from Atlanta's incredible streak of 14 consecutive division titles.
Brian McCann debuted in the final year of that run, and has since been joined by the likes of Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Kris Medlen. These men have the team poised for another substantial run of success.
Waiting in the wings are other top prospects who are seeking the opportunity to prove themselves at the big league level.
After struggling through the 2012 season, right-hander Julio Teheran got himself back on track over the offseason in the Dominican Republic, thanks in large part to a meeting with childhood idol Pedro Martinez.
While pitching in winter ball, Teheran had the opportunity to meet Martinez and gain valuable insight on what it takes to compete mentally rather than just physically. With his confidence restored, mechanical adjustments were also made to the young righty's delivery.
Teheran, 22, was just 7-9 with a 5.08 ERA in 131 Triple-A innings last season, while his strikeout rate dipped from 7.6 to 6.7 SO/9. Much of that can be traced to attacking hitters with a somewhat one-dimensional approach and becoming too reliant on velocity rather than command.
Equipped with a game plan from Martinez that included conserving his energy in order to last longer in starts, Teheran has been showing the ability to pitch rather than simply throw this spring.
Picking and choosing the times to reach back for something extra seems like a simple concept, but consider that last season was the first time in Teheran's career than his best was routinely not good enough to translate into winning efforts.
While he is capable of peppering the strike zone with a mid-90s heat, Teheran has developed a two-seam fastball with sinking action. That addition has, in turn, made his changeup and breaking ball more effective. It has also allowed him to work comfortably in the low-90s throughout his appearances this spring.
Veteran starter Tim Hudson told David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he has been impressed with Teheran's refined approach this spring.
“He’s really pounding the strike zone, and his two-seamer has really looked good,” said Hudson, who’s had a long, prosperous career relying on the sinker (two-seamer). “That’s something he’s been working on. He’s using it to both sides of the plate. I think that’s a great pitch for him because he doesn’t have to be so precise with it – it’s a contact pitch.”
His March 17 start against the New York Mets was a fine example of how far Teheran has come in roughly one calender year. He surrendered a leadoff home run among three hard-hit balls to open the game, but stayed composed and shut the Mets' bats down over six innings to earn the victory.
It is that kind of performance that has earned him consistent praise this spring—and the opportunity to join the Atlanta rotation.
General manager Frank Wren was able to deal both Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino to fill other needs for the team in large part because of Teheran’s track record and projectable, frontline stuff.
Atlanta committed itself to Teheran for the opening months of 2013 at the very least. He will be a substantial building block if he is able to carry his Grapefruit League success into the regular season.
Christian Bethancourt, 21, is one of the premier defensive catchers in all of minor league baseball. That skill set has earned him top prospect status for the better part of his career.
The question, however, is will Bethancourt be able to hit enough to become Atlanta's next everyday catcher?
Baseball America has ranked him the best defensive catcher in the Braves organization in three of the last four seasons. He also earned the publication's honor as top receiver in the Southern League in 2012.
There are very few flaws in his work behind the plate, but refining his approach while at the plate will be the key to Bethancourt's progression. Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals began his career in a similar fashion, only to become one of the best all-around catchers in the game.
After his appearance in the All-Star Futures Game last season, the Braves saw fit to add Bethancourt to the 40-man roster in November. He is a career .265 hitter, but his .297 on-base percentage is more accurate indicator of his inability to get aboard at a consistent rate.
Bethancourt has not shown much in the way of run production either. He has hit just 14 homers and driven in only 157 runs in 358 minor league games.
After a broken hand in August halted his 2012 season, Bethancourt played in the Domincan Winter League for Licey in order to make up for some lost time. He appeared in 23 games there, but batted only .224 with three doubles in 58 at-bats.
Bethancourt reported to camp well aware that his offense needs to catch up with his defensive skills. He discussed it with Mark Bowman of MLB.com.
"It's no secret that I have to work on my offense," Bethancourt said. "I was working on it in the winter and in Panama, too. I am here to show what I can do."
His Grapefruit League playing time has been limited by the signing of Gerald Laird and the emergence of Evan Gattis as a serious contender to break camp with the team this season. Bethancourt has just two hits in 15 at-bats for a .133 average.
The spring numbers are obviously a small sample size and have little bearing on Atlanta's long-term plans for Bethancourt.
Given his age and the fact he has never played above Double-A, the Braves will likely keep Bethancourt in Mississippi to open the season, though they could see fit to challenge him with a promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett.
Though he may be slightly built, righty J.R. Graham has been lighting up radar guns this spring. In doing so, he was able to make quite an impression before being reassigned to minor league camp last weekend.
Graham, 23, was a fourth-round pick out of Santa Clara in 2011 and is coming off a very strong full season effort between High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi in 2012. He compiled a 12-2 record to go along with a 2.80 ERA in 148 innings over his 26 starts in those two stops.
Graham utilizes a fastball that routinely sits in the mid-90s and was even touching triple digits in a spring game against the Tigers in late February.
Suffice it to say, Graham has the stuff to dominate. He uses a sinking fastball to generate ground-ball outs while working in both a slider and changeup to keep hitters guessing. With his high-end velocity, one has to wonder which role will Graham be best suited for over the long haul.
Proving that he can go after hitters with a well rounded approach is an important part of his development, as general manager Frank Wren told MLB.com's Mark Bowman.
"I think what is interesting is we've seen him become more of a thrower all spring and not pitch," Wren said. "We've all seen him pitch. I think it's just an adrenaline rush, being in big league camp and trying to show what he can do. He's not trying to pitch as much as we would like."
The Braves reassigned Graham so that he can get stretched out as a starter in minor league camp. That should allow him to get back into a more familiar routine than coming in out of the bullpen.
He will open the season in the rotation for Gwinnett, but there is no question Graham made quite an impression with his big league innings this spring.
Evan Gattis may have slugged his way into a spot with the Braves when camp breaks in a week-and-a-half.
Atlanta may have an interesting decision to make when it comes to what is best to do with the burly slugger. Starting catcher Brian McCann is still rehabbing from right shoulder surgery, leaving the Braves in search of a backup for veteran Gerald Laird to start the season.
Gattis, 26, does not have the polish of Bethancourt on the defensive side of things, but what he lacks as a receiver is made up for by his potent bat.
He has combined to play exactly 162 games over the last two years, and his run production is off the charts. Gattis has batted .315/.387/.604 with 44 doubles, 40 home runs and 138 RBI in 691 plate appearances during that time.
Gattis followed up those numbers with a torrid campaign for Zulia of the Venezuelan Winter League, where he batted .303 with 16 homers in 53 games.
It carried right over to spring training as well. Gattis is batting .357 with two homers and 10 RBI in 19 games. He has also shown that he may be more capable behind the plate than originally thought.
The numbers are impressive, but Gattis has just 182 at-bats above the Class-A level. Hitting coach Greg Walker gave his evaluation of the young catcher's approach to David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“He doesn’t try to do too much,” Walker said. “He understands a lot about hitting, and the way he goes about his work and all, I like a lot. Obviously I wish he had more experience, but you look at him mechanically – physically he’s a beast, and mechanically he’s sound. So now it becomes, could he handle the bright lights and all that?”
While he could certainly fill the spot until McCann returns, the Braves will have to determine what the best course of action will be after that.
Atlanta will have to decide whether or not Gattis would benefit from catching everyday in Triple-A, or serving as a third catcher and backup outfielder at the big league level.
Left-hander Sean Gilmartin came into camp with the opportunity to compete against Julio Teheran for the fifth starter's job, but that battle never really seemed to materialize.
By the time Teheran was done turning heads, Gilmartin was left with just one starting assignment this spring. Overall, he allowed six earned runs over eight innings of Grapefruit League play. While he surrendered 12 hits, GIlmartin did not issue a walk and fanned six batters.
Gilmartin, who will turn 23 years old in May, was Atlanta's first-round selection in the 2011 draft. Already a polished pitcher when he was taken 28th overall out of Florida State, he has moved quickly through the minor league chain for the Braves.
His fastball sits right around 90 mph, but his secondary pitches are already advanced. Possessing a top-shelf changeup and a quality slider, his arsenal has led to good results thus far in his professional career.
In 2012, Gilmartin was named a Southern League All-Star while with Mississippi, turning in a 5-8 record an a 3.54 ERA in 20 starts there. His control was extremely sharp, evidenced by just 26 walks in 119 innings pitched before earning a promotion to Triple-A.
With just seven starts above the Double-A level, and only one this spring, Gilmartin will focus on continuing his strike-throwing ways with Gwinnett to open 2013. If Gilmartin enjoys success there, he could definitely see his first taste of the big leagues at some point this season.