Braves pitcher Teheran regains confidence

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Julio Teheran went to 2012 spring training as a leading candidate for the Braves' fifth-starter job, and fell on his face. He posted a 9.37 ERA in five Grapefruit League games while allowing an alarming nine home runs in 16-1/3 innings, the beginning of a rough year spent almost entirely in Triple-A.

A year later, he has an even better chance to win the No. 5 spot in the Braves rotation. In fact, he’s the clear favorite for the job after Randall Delgado was traded to Arizona last month.

And this time, Teheran says he’s better prepared after working on his slider and sinker – and mental state -- during winter ball in the Dominican Republic.

“I feel like I have more confidence,” said Teheran, who allowed just two hits in 16-2/3 scoreless innings over his final three winter-ball starts, to finish 2-1 with a 3.23 ERA in seven starts for Licey.  “I know I have to work hard to be the fifth starter, but in my mind, just work hard and I’ll be there.”

He’s correct about being in the rotation. Right now, the Braves’ only other options are journeyman Daniel Rodriguez, a 28-year-old left-hander signed out of the Mexican League last summer, and lefty Sean Gilmartin, 22, a first-round draft pick in 2011 who’s pitched in only 33 minor league games.

Braves pitchers and catchers reported to spring training Monday and will have their first workout Tuesday at Disney's Wide World of Sports. The rest of the team is due in Thursday.

The only other pitcher even mentioned as fifth-starter candidate is prospect J.R. Graham, whose stock rose sharply after he went 12-2 with a 2.80 ERA in his first full minor league season. But Graham, 23, has only made nine starts above Class-A, and he’s unlikely to compete for a major-league spot this spring.

The only Braves prospect ranked ahead of Graham by most experts is Teheran, who was widely regarded as one of the top two or three pitching prospects in baseball before last season. He slipped some after going 7-9 with a 5.08 ERA in his second year at Triple-A, where his fastball velocity was down and his pitch command unpredictable.

Teheran, who turned 22 last month, had some promising starts in the final weeks of the minor league season, then dialed up his performance in the last two weeks of winter ball. He struck out Aguilas’ Manny Ramirez on four pitches Nov. 22, and didn’t allow more than one hit in any of his final three starts, totaling 15 strikeouts with four walks in 16-2/3 innings.

“When I faced Manny Ramirez, I was thinking I’ve got to be aggressive, I’ve got to be Julio Teheran,” he said, “and I’ve got to show everybody I can pitch in the big leagues.”

Teheran said his improvement stemmed from going back to how he pitched in the past, instead of thinking so much of adjustments the team wanted him to make. He also got a little bigger and a lot stronger, working on his back and core muscles.

Braves officials including general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez attended his final winter-ball start, where he pitched six innings of one-hit ball with no walks and eight strikeouts.

“He’s maturing.” Gonzalez said. “He looked different in winter ball. The game we saw, he looked like a guy that has pitched. Sometimes, failure is a good teacher. And for all accounts, everybody was expecting a little better than a 5.08 ERA with a 7-9 record. And there were some nights where he didn’t get out of the third inning.

“It’s experience. Failure sometimes, if taken the right way, it matures you.”