Last Man Standing: Even with Santana, the Braves are counting on Teheran.

If there was a general consensus regarding Atlanta’s starting pitching heading into Spring Training, it was that whatever the Braves lacked in star power, they made up for in depth. No Paul Maholm, Tim Hudson, or Tommy Hanson? No problem for the Braves! With an enviable amount of above-average arms for the present, and a couple of innings-eating veterans and semi-useful youngsters in reserve, the club looked comfortably stocked in regards to pitching. That said, their supposed surplus was only ever really considered a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ level precaution – capable of filling in ably for a spell should one of their presumed starters hit the DL, but no one particular option that would be a long-term solution should disaster strike. Still, they were in a better situation than most any other NL squad.

Then of course, disaster struck; projected Opening Day starter Mike Minor is returning from a case of unspecifiedsoreshoulder-itis, and may start the season on the DL. Kris Medlen experienced the dreaded forearm tightness indicative of a UCL injury over the weekend, and is now expected to undergo Tommy John surgery sometime soon. Speaking of TJ surgeries, Brandon Beachy would have been making his full-season return from his own, but is currently shelved with biceps soreness. With Gavin Floyd’s elbow already ruling him out until May, the Braves were suddenly stretched; almost overnight, Alex Wood and Freddy Garcia (!) were vaulted into prominent rotation positions, with David Hale also in the mix for significant playing time. With little alternative but to bolster their ailing staff, the club subsequently came from nowhere to quickly sign Ervin Santana (who as an aside, profiles to suit Turner Field nicely) to a one year pact, sacrificing a draft pick to the Royals to do so. But you knew all that already. What, or who, I’m interested in today is the only original Atlanta starter left standing – Julio Teheran.

Signed by the Braves out of his hometown of Cartagena, Colombia at the tender age of 16, Teheran quickly garnered the status of an ace in the making – and was consequently ranked as the no. 5 prospect in the game by Baseball America in both 2011 and 2012. After a dismal 2012 Triple-A season in which he compiled a 5.08 ERA in 131.0 innings pitched however, the shine of the then-22 year old’s future stardom became very much obscured – his ranking drastically falling to no. 44. He opened the 2013 season in the majors though, only to give up five home runs in 16 innings en route to accruing a 7.31 ERA through his first three starts. Things were not looking promising.

From then on though, Teheran pitched 169.7 innings of 2.81 ERA and 1.12 WHIP ball, striking out 8.4 batters per nine along the way (a mark that further improved to 9.4 after the All-Star break), and carrying a no-hit bid late into the eight inning of a June match-up against the Pirates. From being on the rotation bubble in early April, Teheran finished the season firmly entrenched as a key cog in Atlanta’s future, and fifth in NL ROY voting (as part a ridiculously strong top group of Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig, Shelby Miller and Hyun-jin Ryu). Though he had only racked up one year, 62 days of ML service time, and was under arbitration control through 2018, the Braves had seen enough; as part of their offseason extension onslaught, the club locked up their young stud to a team-friendly six-year extension in mid-February, a deal worth a guaranteed $32.4M and with an additional $12M option for the 2020 season. As pointed out by Nick Bacarella of Baseball Prospectus “The current going rate for one marginal win is about $7 million; the Braves locked up Teheran for an average of $5.4 million per year. If Teheran posts 0.75 WARP per season for the next six years, the Braves will, at the very least, break even.” Given such an optimistic fiscal projection, Atlanta have themselves a bargain should Teheran avoid the curse currently afflicting his teammates. With such injuries though, come fan hopes that Teheran might not be quite ready to match.

Expected to quietly continue his development amongst his highly-regarded peers in 2014, the 23 year old Teheran will now be expected to lead Atlanta’s rotation (despite the late addition of Santana). Already, he has been named as their Opening Day starter, ensuring the spotlight will be on the youngster from the jump. I worry though, that we are once again expecting too much from the sophomore. Last year, though successful, Teheran was basically a two-pitch starter – riding his four-seam fastball and slider, he phased out his sinker and curveball as the season went on, while also essentially ditching his changeup offering. While such a fastball/slider approach worked effectively against same-handed batters (Teheran’s .580 OPS allowed against them ranked 11th among the 57 qualified RH starters), lefties crushed him to the tune of a .355 wOBA and .823 OPS (sixth-worst amongst qualified RH starters). There’s a lot to like, but there’s also clearly still room to improve should the Colombian native wish to avoid regressing to the 3.76 xFIP he posted last year.

He might not be an ace yet, nor ever develop into one. But could Teheran have a long future as an athletic no. 2 starter? Most definitely. I’m sure at this point the Braves will be happy just as long as he stays healthy during 2014.

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