Last season, Julio Teheran entered Spring Training with sky high potential and a solid chance at earning a permanent role in Atlanta’s rotation. However, a year later, the Columbia native traveled to Lake Buena Vista in a similar position as he did in 2012 — but with more doubts and a heap of pressure to boot.
Teheran didn’t only struggle last spring; he struggled with Triple A Gwinnett, as well. His velocity dropped, his earned run average soared and all of the sudden, the baseball world became a lot more apprehensive about his chances to one day develop into an MLB ace.
Adversity on the field was not something this kid was used to facing, to say the least; and how he responds will give us a strong indication of his mental toughness. It isn’t always easy for young pitchers to live up to high expectations — just ask Tommy Hanson. Much like Hanson, Teheran had previously been named the top right-handed pitching prospect in the world, but has been unable to live up to the hype just yet.
That said, the 22-year-old came to camp this March and looked a lot more mature. Perhaps mature enough to not only crack the Major Leagues, but enjoy substantial success.
With the chance to get his career back on track, Teheran has put together quite an impressive spring, and may have locked up the Braves’ spot as the No. 5 starter.
In 20 Spring Training innings, Teheran currently sports a 1.04 ERA and has surrendered just seven hits. Oppenents are batting under .100 against him, and he’s registered a whopping 35 strike outs in just 26 innings. He also has 12 more Ks than anyone else on the Braves roster (Maholm has 18).
Suffice it to say, if he pitches HALF as well in the regular season, Teheran will be just fine.
“If we’ve got to break camp tomorrow, he’s our fifth starter,” Fredi Gonzalez said recently. “He’s pitched that well.”
At this point in time, Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Paul Maholm are virtual locks to be a part of Atlanta’s rotation, with the fifth and final spot up for grabs. Teheran doesn’t exactly have a lot of competition, and reports are already coming out that he’s a lock for No. 5.
And if/when that happens, expect the other Braves starters to give Teheran their full support.
“He’s really looked good, man,” Tim Hudson said. “I think he’s made the biggest stride forward of anybody I’ve seen in camp. You can see the confidence grow, more than anything.”
Perhaps the lack of competition has made matters easier for Teheran. With the departure of Randall Delgado, the organization doesn’t have any other viable candidates to leapfrog him in the depth chart. Sean Gilmartin hasn’t looked Major League ready this spring and GM Frank Wren has made clear that they do not wish to rush JR Graham’s development.
“With him and Delgado, I don’t know if he necessarily handled the competition for the spot the right way,” Kris Medlen said. “He was (tentative). Now he’s like, ‘It’s mine.’ And he’s pitched like it, too. Everything’s working for him right now. His mechanics look awesome, and he’s getting dudes to swing over the ball by that much (holds hands six inches apart).
Sometimes we forget that young prospects — whether we’re talking baseball or any other sport — are still kids, not machines. Think back to when you were 21 and how developed you were physically, mentally and emotionally. While there will always be guys like Stephen Strasburg and Mike Trout who can jump into the big leagues without much adversity, they simply aren’t the norm.
“This is the first time I’ve seen him where you can tell he looks and feels he belongs,” Frank Wren said roughly a month ago. “When he was a younger kid, you’d look out on the field and you could pick him out immediately (because of his slender build). He’s grown up.”
Teheran needed time to evolve into the kind of athlete that can compete at the highest level baseball in the world, and it appears he’s accomplished that task.
Now we just have to see if this recent success can continue once games start to matter.
Andrew Hirsh is a freelance sportswriter based in North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter @andrewhirsh.