Braves clear spot, need Teheran to step up

  LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Julio Teheran has looked and sounded different at this Braves spring training, a little more muscular and a lot more confident than a year ago.

Braves general manager Frank Wren is among those who’ve noticed.

“This is the first time I’ve seen him where you can tell he looks and feels he belongs,” Wren said of the Colombian right-hander, who makes his spring debut Sunday with a start against the Pirates in Bradenton, Fla. “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, who turned 22 in January, is the heavy favorite for the No. 5 starter’s job in the Braves rotation. Barring injury or an abysmal spring, the job seems certain to be his. The Braves traded Tommy Hanson and Randall Delgado this winter, clearing a path for their top pitching prospect to secure a rotation spot he wasn’t ready to win a year ago.

“I have more confidence,” Teheran said when camp opened. “I know I have to work hard to be the fifth starter, but in my mind, just work hard and I’ll be there.”

Ranked as one of baseball’s top two or three pitching prospects up until a year ago, Teheran’s status slipped after he struggled in his second season at Triple-A Gwinnett. He went 7-9 with a 5.08 ERA, and his fastball velocity and overall pitch command were off. Teheran had been 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA at Gwinnett in 2011.

“This is a very mental game,” Wren said. “It’s a game that your mental state and your confidence is as important as your physical ability. And when those two things start getting beaten down, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw or what Baseball America says about you, you’re going to be a beaten man. And there was a period of time last year where he was.”

Teheran had several encouraging starts near the end of the Triple-A season, then really put things during winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he allowed two hits in 16-2/3 scoreless innings over his final three starts for Licey. He struck out Manny Ramirez on four pitches Nov. 22, and didn’t allow more than one hit in any of his final three starts while totaling 15 strikeouts with four walks in 16-2/3 innings.

“He seems to still be on that track,” Wren said. “There’s going to be growing pains. We saw Mike Minor come in here last year and absolutely dominate spring training, then he went out and had a couple of months where we weren’t real sure he belonged. So there’s going to be ups and downs. But (Teheran) is on the right track.”

A couple of years ago when Teheran was one of baseball’s ascendant prospects, Wren compared the then-skinny pitcher to a young Pedro Martinez.

“My comparison to Pedro when I saw him at 16,” Wren said, “was he had a live arm, but he also had a joy and, I don’t want to say arrogance, but it was a joy and an I-know-I-can-get-you-out kind of attitude that you saw in Pedro. And that was kind of the same thing with Julio even at 16. He just knew he was going to get you out.”

Now that he’s in line for a rotation spot, the Braves hope his confidence is back. Better yet, they hope his performance will be.

“If everything goes well and everybody stays healthy, we can potentially be really good,” veteran starter Tim Hudson said of the Braves rotation. “Obviously we need some guys to take another step forward. We need Teheran – he’s a big X factor. If he can come in and believe that he can pitch at this level and be as good in the big leagues as he is in Triple-A, I think he’s going to be pretty good for us.”