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Do you know Braves prospect J.R. Graham?



 

 When a report spread late Wednesday that Arizona general manager Kevin Towers was asking the Braves to include pitching prospect J.R. Graham in an already-substantial trade offer for Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton, and I replied to readers that I didn’t think the Braves would do that, some asked me if the Braves really thought that highly of Graham.

  When I answered “yes,” some others asked me why? (Man, they never let you off easily on Twitter.)

  To answer, let’s go back to Nov. 8, the second day at the GM meeings in Indian Wells, Calif., when I asked Braves GM Frank Wren about Graham and whether the Braves were surprised by how well the smallish, hard-throwing right-hander pitched in his first full minor league season in 2012, after being drafted in the fourth round in 2011 out of Santa Clara University in California. Wren indicated they weren’t.

“We had a good sense based on that first season after he was drafted,” he said, referring to Graham’s performance in 13 games (eight starts) at rookie-league Danville in 2011, when he had a 1.72 ERA and 52 strikeouts with 13 walks (and no homers allowed) in 57-2/3 innings. “We liked him a lot, and he’s done nothing but get better and continue to impress.

  “He’s a premium talent.”

  In 2012, Graham went 9-1 with a 2.63 ERA and 1.023 WHIP in 17 starts at high-A Lynchburg, and 3-1 with a 3.18 ERA in nine starts at Double-A Mississippi. He had 42 strikeouts with 17 walks in 45-1/3 innings at Miss'ip.

   I asked Wren if Graham had put himself in position to eventually become one of the truly elite pitching prospects.

  “No,” Wren said. “He is one of those guys. He’s absolutely one of those guys.”

   He’s listed at 6 feet and 185 pounds. “He’s probably Huddy’s size,” Wren said, comparing his physique to Tim Hudson's. “Built like Huddy. Maybe a little stockier than Huddy.”

   Graham is not big, but he was already big-time, at least in the Braves’ view. I asked Wren that November day if Graham had become the top pitching prospect in the organization.

  “He’s up there close,” Wren said. “There’s not many guys in the game that pitch consistently above 95 [mph], and he’s one of those guys.”

  Wren had already heard others in the organization heap plenty of praise upon Graham before Wren saw him pitch in person at a Double-A game last summer.

 “In the game where I saw him, he sat at 96-98 [mph],” he said, “and his last pitch, in the seventh [inning], was 97.”

  Graham has a breaking ball that Wren termed “real good” and a changeup that’s improved steadily.

  Which makes his bread-and-butter four-seam and two-seam fastballs all the more effective.

  “His fastball,” Wren said, “is electric.”

  He’s got the arm and the developing pitch repertoire, but Graham also has intangibles that team officials love.

“Great kid,” Wren said. “One of the hardest workers, one of the best athletes. He’s an impressive young guy.”

   When Baseball America announced its Braves prospect rankings in mid-December, Graham was No. 2 overall, behind pitcher Julio Teheran. After repeating as the Braves’ No. 1 prospect, Teheran and another young starter, Randall Delgado, was expected to be part of the offer to Arizona for Upton.

  The presence of other rising pitching prospects, led by Graham, was one reason Teheran and Delgado were no longer considered untouchable by the Braves, especially after Teheran’s lackluster second season in Triple-A (7-9 with a 5.08 ERA in 26 starts).

  It wasn’t long ago when “electric fastball” and “potential ace” showed up anytime Teheran was written about or discussed. Sometimes, for any number of reasons, a pitcher’s development stalls. He has a nagging injury, or maybe tinkers with his delivery, has a few bad games and loses confidence.

  Some recover and get back on the previously projected career arc.

  Others become merely good or average, never fulfilling vast potential others saw in them -- potential that can become unwieldy for those who might lack confidence or tenacity, or who wear down due to mechanical problems or injury. Or maybe some were just were never going to be much better than they were at the outset of their pro careers? You know, sort of like the 6-foot-2 kid with facial hair on your seventh-grade basketball team?

  Tommy Hanson was considered the best pitching prospect in baseball not many years ago. Now he’s gone, traded to the Angels this winter after nagging injuries and a disappointing 1-1/2 seasons that followed a terrific first half in 2011. He was traded, the Braves said, to open a spot for either Teheran or Delgado to crack the starting rotation this spring.

 Teheran, who’ll only turn 22 on Sunday, is trying to get back on the fast track, to shake off a troublesome Triple-A season as some skeptics begin to wonder if he’ll ever be the top-of-rotation standout he was projected to be. His strong finish to the season, and another good flurry late in the winter ball season, were steps in the right direction.

  But the arms race never slows in baseball, and the Braves keep developing pitchers. They know that producing home-grown talent is essential for them to be a consistent playoff contender in an era when teams with far bigger payrolls can afford to buy or trade for proven, expensive veterans to fill most of the spots in their starting rotations.

  Six of the Braves’ top seven prospects as judged by Baseball America were pitchers, including lefty Sean Gilmartin, a first-round draft pick out of Florida State in 2011, the year Graham was also drafted. Gilmartin finished last season at Triple-A and was fourth on the BA prospects list, just ahead of righty Lucas Sims, last year’s first-round pick out of Brookwood High in Snellville, Ga.

  But the new golden boy among Braves pitching prospects seems to be Graham.

  When I asked Wren back in November which minor-league affiliate Graham was likely to be with to begin the 2013 season, the GM joked, “We’ll have to ask him where he wants to go.”

  Wren said, “He’s going to be in Double-A or Triple-A, one of those. Depends on if we think he needs to work on anything. But I think he did enough at Double-A that he’s going to get a good look anyway.”

 Anyone see the first episode of the new TV series, The Following, with Kevin Bacon? Pretty good stuff, eh? I was surprised by the intensity and graphic violence on a major network (Fox). The first episode was interesting enough for me to set the DVR for the second episode Monday. By the way, the first episode was filmed in Atlanta. Which probably explains why Bacon was on a Delta flight I took out of Atlanta on a Braves road trip late last season. He's a wiry little dude.

•  OK, let’s close this with an all-timer, “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney & Wings. Click here for the outstanding video. Do it, you'll feel better after listening and watching. Seriously. By the way, how many today even think of Band on the Run being a reference to The Beatles? In that context, and in this video, it provides so much gravitas to a song that is just terrific anyway. Talk about a tune that stands the test of time….

“BAND ON THE RUN” by Paul McCartney

Stuck inside these four walls, sent inside forever
Never seeing no one nice again like you
Mama you, mama you

If I ever get out of here
Thought of giving it all away
To a registered charity
All I need is a pint a day
If I ever get out of here

Well, the rain exploded with a mighty crash as we fell into the sun
And the first one said to the second one there I hope you're having fun
Band On The Run, Band On The Run.
And the jailer man and Sailor Sam were searching everyone
For the band on the run
Band on the run
Band on the run
Band on the run
And the jailer man and Sailor Sam were searching every one

For the band on the run, Band on the run, Band on the run, Band on the run

Well, the undertaker drew a heavy sight seeing no one else had come
And a bell was ringing in the Village Square for the rabbits on the run

Band on the run
Band on the run
Band on the run
And the jailer man and Sailor Sam were searching every one

Band on the run
Band on the run
Band on the run
Band on the run

Well, the night was falling as the desert world began to settle down
In the town they're searching for us everywhere but we never will be found

Band on the run
Band on the run
Band on the run
Band on the run

And the County Judge, who held a grudge
Will search forevermore

For the band on the run
Band on the run
Band on the run
Band on the run

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