Hard-throwing Braves prospect Graham makes big impression

  LAKELAND, Fla. – J.R. Graham is more than likely to start the season in a Braves minor league starting rotation, but count Detroit manager Jim Leyland among those who won’t be surprised if the hard-throwing prospect reaches the majors sooner than later.

  Graham lit up radar guns at Joker Marchant Stadium during the eighth and ninth innings of the Braves’ 5-3 Grapefruit League win against the Tigers, throwing consistently in the 94-98 mph range and topping out at 99 mph while allowing one hit and one walk in two innings.

  He had one strikeout and induced a double-play grounder to end the game.

 “Jim (Leyland) walking off the field said, ‘Where’d you get that guy?’” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.

  The Braves got him in the fourth round of the 2011 June draft out of Santa Clara University. Graham rapidly ascended the organizational prospect ladder to No. 2 behind Julio Teheran, according to Baseball America, and now he’s made a strong impression early in big-league camp. This despite having pitched in only nine games above the Class-A level.

  “I’m here to learn, get the experience,” Graham said. “So it’s not like I’m going to be thrown in there one day and go, ‘Oh, crap.’ I’m especially trying to just get used to the environment, seeing the big-league name on the jersey.”

    Wearing old-school stirrups over his white socks with pants up to the knees, the undersized (generously listed at 6 feet) but sturdily built right-hander was a picture of aggression Wednesday, stalking the mound between pitches and leaning over and in toward the hitter when working out of the stretch.

  If the bend at the waist was a bit similar to Craig Kimbrel’s, so was the velocity, although it wasn’t quite as overwhelming as the 102 reading that showed up on one of his first pitches  in the eighth inning. The actual reading, according to a team official with a radar gun, was 99 mph.

  That’s a tick or two above what Graham topped out at last season while compiling a 12-2 record and 2.80 ERA in 26 starts in his first full season of pro ball, including nine starts in Double-A after a promotion from high-A Lynchburg. He had 110 strikeouts and 34 walks in 148 innings combined, and allowed only 123 hits including eight homers.

  Graham, who turned 23 in January, is a good all-around athlete who was a two-way player in college until his junior year, when he  focused on pitching.

   “I’m kind of a young pitcher – no in age, but in experience,” he said. “So I’m still kind of learning to be a pitcher instead of a thrower. I made a couple of mistakes today over the plate that cost me. So I’m just trying to settle back and learn from the veterans.”

  He will likely begin the season as a starter at Double-A Mississsippi or Triple-A Gwinnett, but Gonzalez said he wouldn’t rule out considering him for the big-league bullpen.

  “Yeah, why not? We’ve still got five weeks left,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of stuff can happen. Injuries can happen. At least if he goes out and pitches well, we’ll know he’s impressive. I’ll keep his name in the hat.”

   He has an excellent sinker and a real good slider, and Graham has worked to improve his changeup, which he doesn’t need for relief stints he’s working in big-league camp.

   After a perfect eighth inning with a strikeout, groundout and line-out to shortstop, in the ninth he gave up a leadoff single and a walk before getting a soft flyball out and inducing a game-ending double-play grounder.

   “He had a great eighth inning, so we ran him back out there because we’ve got to stretch him out for his season in the minor leagues … or whatever we want to use him as,” Gonzalez said. “Then like any young kid, ninth inning, all of a sudden it’s going to be different, and he got a little excited. But he kept pitching, which is good to see.

  “I think every time he goes out there facing major league hitters here in big league camp it’s going to be beneficial for him.”

  Intensity fairly oozed from him in his two innings Wednesday, but Graham felt more comfortable than in his first spring appearance Sunday against the Yankees. He allowed a hit and two walks in that one.

  “I’m always going to be amped, it’s just the kind of player I am,” he said. “But I was way more relaxed. I think I’m rushing a little bit out of the stretch, but when I was in the wind-up I felt on point.”

Work in progress: Veteran Tim Hudson made his second spring start Wednesday and gave up two runs and two hits in three innings, including a towering two-run homer by Prince Fielder in the first inning. Hudson had no walks and one strikeout and retired the last five batters he faced on groundouts.

  “It’s a process,” Hudson said. “Just going out there and getting some work in. I’m obviously not where I want to be. It’s a gradual thing."

  The five consecutive groundball outs were encouraging, he said. “My location’s not very good, though. My changeup’s not there, my curveball’s not there, which at this point in the spring I really don’t expect it to be consistent yet. There’s a couple of things I’ve got to work on the next few starts. And fastball location. It isn’t where I want it.”

  Fielder took him deep to right-center on a cut fastball.

  “Inside cutter that caught more of the plate than I wanted to,” Hudson said. “Didn’t really have as much action on it as I wanted, and he whacked it. Gave it a ride.”

  Good day for Francisco: Braves third-base candidate Juan Francisco went 2-for-4 with three RBIs, including a long three-run homer off Tigers starter Rick Porcello.

  “He hit that ball a long way and it went out really, really quick,” Gonzalez said. “You don’t see that combination very often. He had good at-bats. He’s been having some good at-bats the last two or three games he’s played. Not only that, he played some good defense yesterday.”

  Francisco also hit an opposite-field single off lefty reliever Kyle Lobstein. That was big for a hitter who's struggled against lefties in limited opportunities in the major leagues. Francisco showed a lot of improvement in that area this winter, hitting .333 with four homers and a .965 OPS in 60 at-bats against lefties in the Dominican Republic.

  “That’s good,” Gonzalez said. “He’s a good hitter. Hopefully he gets an opportunity. We’ll give him a shot and see what he can do.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.