Braves' system filled with plenty of top righties
Teheran, Sims, Graham pace strong group of Minor League hurlers
The future success of every Major League team lies largely in its Minor League pipeline. With that in mind, MLB.com is looking at each team's farm system, from the Top 20 Prospects to under-the-radar types.
A year ago, the upper crust of the Braves' system featured three right-handers: Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado.
Teheran is the last man standing now. The Justin Upton deal included Delgado, and Vizcaino was shipped to the Cubs at the non-waiver Trade Deadline as part of the deal for left-handed pitcher Paul Maholm and outfielder Reed Johnson. But Teheran, again MLB.com's No. 1 Braves prospect, is the leader of a new set of three right-handers atop Atlanta's system.
Teheran has a chance at a rotation job this spring, while J.R. Graham (No. 4) is near ready and Lucas Sims (No. 3) is coming down the pipeline.
"I think we're still a very strong system," assistant general manager and director of player development Bruce Manno said. "You know, we're pleased with what we saw out of the Draft last year in Lucas Sims and [No. 6] Alex Wood. You use the system in two different ways -- you use it to either replenish your Major League team or to acquire players to do that."
Really, though, the Braves have much more than just a trio of arms on the way. Guys like 2012 second-rounder Wood, a left-hander, lefty Sean Gilmartin (No. 5) and righty Mauricio Cabrera (No. 7) add up to six pitchers in the top seven of MLB.com's list.
The lone exception? Catcher Christian Bethancourt, who's 21 years old and slots in at No. 2. A fractured left hand ended his 2012 season early, leaving him to only half a season at Double-A Mississippi, but he's in line to be Atlanta's starting catcher a year from now.
"I think if he would have been able to complete the full season there, I think it would've made a world of difference for him," Manno said of Bethancourt. "He's fine [health-wise], he went and played winter ball in the Dominican and was able to kind of make up some at-bats, so that helped quite a bit with the time he missed. He's a player who we really like his defensive ability, and offensively we think he's going to continue to improve. We have to see where he is in his development in the spring before we decide what's going to happen to him [level-wise], because we just don't know without the full sample of a season last year."
As far as Teheran, the Braves believe he can win a job on the big league roster this spring. His delivery got out of whack last year, and after he was so good in 2011 -- 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA in 144 2/3 innings at Triple-A Gwinnett -- he had some growing pains that Manno does not believe are unusual. Teheran just turned 22 in January.
"Sometimes you go through some growing pains and players will start to -- for whatever the reason, whether it's mechanical, whether it's mental, whether it's physical," Manno said, "they may face a little more adversity the second time around. It's not a bad thing. ... We think he's ready and we think he's got a chance to be one of our five starters."
Top 20 prospects
Sims, who turns 19 in May, is the youngest of the group after Atlanta drafted him 21st overall in 2012 out of Brookwood High School in Snellville, Ga. He won't be ready this year, but his talent and performance have him this high on the list. Sims struck out 39 in 34 innings in Rookie-level ball. He will likely head to Class A Rome to start the season, Manno said, although the final determination comes later.
"I think he's going to be real good for us, but with any young pitcher, it takes time," Manno said. "It takes time to develop. So that's something that we'll get a little better feel for going into Spring Training and so forth. We're excited with the skill level that he brought. … I think for right now, I think we'd say his opportunity may come at [low Class A]. And then again, that depends on how far along we think he is during our camp."
Wood, 22, also came out of Georgia, but as a college draftee, so he's a bit closer. But he hasn't pitched above Rome yet.
The 23-year-old Graham, meanwhile, should be knocking on the door soon. Any questions about Graham's size have been silenced by his radar readings and performance: He went a combined 12-2 with a 2.80 ERA and 110 strikeouts between Class A Lynchburg and Mississippi in 2012.
braves' top prospects
Outfielders Matt Lipka and Todd Cunningham are the leading position players on the list behind Bethancourt, and Lipka's transition from shortstop to center field went as well as can be. However, a torn hamstring shortened Lipka's season to 51 games.
Joe Terdoslavich, No. 15 on the list, is moving to the outfield after a switch to third base didn't pan out. He still may play first base as well.
"We're going to to go ahead and let him play some outfield," Manno said. "It's one of those things where the more positions he can play, the better increase to his value. Being a switch-hitter, he's a great National League player with what he can do. … Our goal for him right now is he'll be playing on the Gwinnett club and he'll be playing somewhere, maybe some outfield, maybe first base."
Under the radar
The Braves' sixth-round Draft choice in 2012, Josh Elander is also switching positions, from catcher to the outfield. He hit four home runs with a .366 on-base percentage in 36 games in Rookie-level ball. Said Manno: "After having an opportunity to look at him behind the plate, with what we have in front, we just felt like he swings the bat really well and we wanted to take advantage of that." Elander will be 22 in March.
Right-hander John Cornely, 23, struck out 81 in 51 1/3 innings as a reliever for Rome. "[He has a] fastball, slider, good arm," Manno said. "[He] really came on late and improved."
Atlanta's 13th-round pick in 2012 and a closer at Appalachian State, righty Nate Hyatt combined for a 1.46 ERA in 24 2/3 innings across two stops in in his debut, including Rome. He's 22.
Hitter of the Year
Evan Gattis, 26, has the best power in the system, and while where he plays might be a question, that won't matter for a Hitter of the Year honor. He led the Venezuelan Winter League in slugging at .595.
Pitcher of the Year
Sims could do some damage at the lower levels of the Minors, but from the inside, the Braves might well view Graham as their best prospect.