|Julio Teheran should open the season in the Braves' rotation and could be the NL Rookie of the Year. (USATSI)|
Prior to the start of the season, we'll highlight a few players in each team's minor-league system to let you know which players you should be paying attention to throughout the year. These aren't meant to be comprehensive top-prospect lists, but should provide a look at some key players within each team's organization.
Much of the Braves' success over the past 20 years can be attributed to the outstanding job the organization does at scouting, signing and developing prospects. Perhaps no one shines as a brighter beacon of that success than the newly retired Chipper Jones, who is a lock to wind up in the Hall of Fame. However, teams like the Rays and Nationals may have surpassed the Braves in prospecting in recent years.
While players like Jason Heyward, Kris Medlen and Freddie Freeman show that the Braves haven't entirely lost the magic touch, the system wasn't thought of as being among the elite even before the Braves traded a package of young players along with Martin Prado to land Justin Upton. However, while the cupboard may be thinner than usual, it surely isn't empty.
2013 Impact Player
RHP Julio Teheran
Before the 2011 season, Teheran was considered one of baseball's top five prospects. Before 2012, same thing. But the shine has worn off the 22-year-old after he posted a 5.08 ERA in 131 innings at Triple-A level last year despite dominating the same level the prior season. In addition to the poor ERA, Teheran allowed 10 hits and three walks per nine innings while striking out just 6.7 batters per nine innings.
Teheran seemed to correct his problems near the end of last season and put together a strong performance in the Dominican Winter League this offseason, striking out 24 batters in 30 2/3 innings while only walking nine. He's been even better in his first four starts of the spring, allowing just two earned runs on four hits and four walks in 14 innings (for a 1.29 ERA and 0.57 WHIP) while striking out 18 batters.
The path for playing time is clear for Teheran after Randall Delgado was moved in the Justin Upton trade. He seems to be rounding into form that made him a top-five prospect as recently as a year ago. With control of his mid-90s fastball looking less like a problem and his secondary pitches coming along well, Teheran should be in the mix for the Rookie of the Year award in the National League this season.
RHP J.R. Graham
Selected in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, Graham, 23, cracked Baseball America's top 100 prospect list for the first time this preseason, checking in at No. 93. His status is on the rise after going 12-2 with a 2.80 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 110 strikeouts in 148 innings between Class-A Advanced and Double-A last season. He has an excellent fastball and solid breaking stuff, and while he may play better in the bullpen long-term, he should be given every chance to establish himself as a quality starting pitcher in the majors. He doesn't have the upside of Teheran, but Graham projects to be a solid mid-rotation guy as soon as next year. Between young starters Teheran, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy, a mid-rotation is really all the Braves need for the foreseeable future.
C/1B/OF Evan Gattis
Gattis, 26, was an unheralded 23rd-round pick in the 2010 draft, which was understandable due to his advanced age for a prospect. It also didn't completely surprise when he excelled against younger competition in the lower levels of the minors. Gattis did hold his own against Double-A pitching last season, hitting .258/.343/.522 with nine home runs in 207 plate appearances.
After hitting 16 home runs in the Venezuelan Winter League (which gave him 34 homers in 130 games since the start of 2012), Gattis looks like a potential bench bat for the Braves early on, using his versatility to back up multiple positions and potentially serve as the Braves' No. 2 catcher while Brian McCann is out. He may not have a long-term starting role in Atlanta, but if he continues his hot spring start (.464/.484/.857 in 31 plate appearances), it would make sense for teams to come calling looking to trade for Gattis.
Aside from Heyward and Freeman, the strength of the Braves' minor-league system lately has been pitching. That should continue to be the case this season and for the near future, with lefties Sean Gilmartin and Alex Wood, and righties Lucas Sims and Mauricio Cabrera joining Teheran and Graham to give the Braves plenty of pitching prospects that could contribute at the major-league level.