As the Braves continue to remove any reminders of the Frank Wren era as if they’re warts in the middle of their forehead — Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward, Alex Wood, Craig Kimbrel, Evan Gattis, Chris Johnson, Jose Peraza (and Christian Bethancourt back in the minors) — it’s clear the remainder of this season will play out like a high-level tryout camp.
“Given where the Braves are, nobody is immovable, except maybe Freddie Freeman,” John Smoltz, the team’s recently knighted Hall of Famer, said. “And even for a young player like Julio, when you see 20-some guys get moved, you can’t help but think, ‘What about me?’”
Yes. What about Julio Teheran? He pitched a gem against Arizona at Turner Field on Friday night, throwing a one-hit shutout for five innings with seven strikeouts before leaving after six with a 3-1 lead. For all of his hiccups and accompanying criticism and trade speculation this season, this is what Teheran has done in his past three starts: 2-0 (with a no decision in a third win), six earned runs allowed in 19 2/3 innings (2.75 ERA), 17 strikeouts and only three walks.
“The last three or four games, I see the same guy I saw before,” pitching coach Roger McDowell said.
“The guy’s still a young pitcher in the prime of his career,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
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“Everybody has one of those seasons in their career when they struggle — this one was mine in the beginning,” Teheran said. “But now I feel I’m where I want to be.”
I’ve believed all season the Braves would be making a mistake to pull the chute on Teheran, amid speculation to that effect around the trade deadline. He won 28 games in his first two full major league seasons. Last year he led the rotation in wins (14), innings (221), ERA (2.89), strikeouts (186) and opponents’ batting average (.232).
He has struggled with command and consistency this season, but as McDowell said, “You win 14 games two years in a row and you make the All-Star team, and the expectation is that’s going to happen every year. Sometimes you fall into that trap.”
Teheran saw his ERA balloon to as high as 5.07 in mid-June (it’s now at 4.44, nearly double Shelby Miller’s 2.48). He has had a split-personality disorder, hinging on hotel bed sheets: He is 6-1 with 2.44 ERA at home; 2-5 with a 6.75 ERA on the road.
Some believe he hasn’t pitched inside and gone after hitters like he used to. But quoth McDowell, “A lot of being aggressive comes from fastball command. Shifting his stance to the left side of the rubber seems to have cured some ills.
When Wren went on his spending spree last winter, he signed Teheran to a six-year, $32.4 million extension. The deal made sense. It was a manageable contract for a young pitcher (now 24) who had shown himself to be the staff ace, and it gave the club cost certainty through at least 2019.
But now there are questions about Teheran’s status. Smoltz, who knows Braves President, Baseball Operations John Hart well and keeps tabs on the Braves, said of Teheran: “When you’re looking at the rotation today, fair or not, his stuff is in the middle. Everybody is looking for the Shelby Miller 97 (mph fastball). But this kid’s a pitcher. He’s just been in a funk.”
Hart and assistant general manager John Coppolella have been stockpiling young arms in the trades. Now they’re in the weeding out process and determining who to keep and who to deal for other pieces. Gonzalez denies rumors that dealing Teheran has been discussed, adding, “You never say nobody’s trade-able because maybe somebody comes in and blows your socks off. But we have never said we would trade this guy. We still see him as a top-of-the-rotation guy. He’s a young guy still trying to figure it out.”
The evaluation process for prospects has changed in baseball. Money does that. The pressure to win quickly does that. Notwithstanding Gonzalez’s comments, the way the Braves deal with Teheran today is not how they might have dealt with him 20 years ago.
“Evaluation now is happening at mach speed,” Smoltz said. “You see guys like Julio who have early success and then struggle for the first time, and they don’t know what to do. It’s a hold-your-breath moment for the team.”
Smoltz speculated that all of the player movement may have unsettled Teheran a bit, but the latter denies that.
“It’s something that’s part of the game,” he said. “I want to stay here. This is where I signed, and I want to stay my whole career here. But you never know what’s going to happen.”
The past several months have reaffirmed that.