LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It wasn’t that long ago when Julio Teheran was 17 years old and standing on one of the back fields at the Braves’ spring training complex, gawking when John Smoltz walked over to speak to some of the team’s minor-league prospects.
“I was excited to see him, even though I couldn’t really understand him since I didn’t know much English,” he said.
Smoltz is retired and in the Hall of Fame now. Teheran isn’t a kid any more. He turned 25 in January. He was married in February in Colombia. He and his wife are expecting their first child in August.
Looking around the Braves’ clubhouse, Julio Teheran is the relative stabilizing presence. How did that happen?
“It sounds weird, but people are looking at me like I’m a veteran,” he said. “I’m one of the oldest players now.”
That’s one of the unfortunate byproducts of this Braves’ roster churn. Teheran is a good starting pitcher, but he shouldn’t be the one everybody is looking to save this Braves’ season. His stature as the team’s No. 1 starter and opening-day pitcher is the residue of: 1) talent; 2) circumstances.
There’s nobody else. Who was manager Fredi Gonzalez going to hand the ball to? Bud Norris, he of the 6.72 ERA? Matt Wisler, who’s entering his second season? Williams Perez, Manny Banuelos, Aaron Blair, Jhoulys Chacin? Because Camp Disney is the land of opportunity and where dreams can come true.
“There’s always a wave of young pitchers coming,” Gonzalez cracked. “Sometimes that wave is near the Marshall Islands, but it’s coming.”
(It pays to have a sense of humor when you don’t know how many waves management will keep you around for.)
Teheran’s first two seasons were impressive. He won 28 games with ERAs of 3.20 (2013) and 2.89 (2014). He struck out 356 batters in 406 2/3 innings. But there were hiccups last year, amid the Braves’ 96-loss season. Teheran was much better in the second half (3.42) than the first (4.56), but overall finished with a higher ERA (4.04), more walks and home runs allowed, a higher OPS against and fewer strikeouts in the same number of starts than the year before.
“It was a difficult year, for me and for the team,” he said. “I kind of started a little slow, and I was trying the whole first half to make adjustments. It took me a while. I was throwing two (bullpen sessions) before every start, trying to get everything back.”
The biggest physical adjustment he said he made was moving to the left side of the rubber to start his delivery. But this is still a young pitcher trying to figure things out with hopes of meeting the astronomic expectations some placed on him, particularly after early success.
“I don’t know what everybody else’s projections were,” Gonzalez said. “I thought he was a middle-of-the-pack rotation guy, maybe near the top.”
In other words, a No. 2 or 3 starter. But Teheran will face No. 1’s early in the season, as he has the past two years, only with less support in the rotation. There were times last season when Teheran became upset when Gonzalez pulled him out of starts. The manager’s response was usually pretty simple as, “Then get the guy out next time.”
Teheran’s journey isn’t so different from most young pitchers who have early success. Opponents watch film, pick up on patterns and tendencies and start to figure you out. Unless the pitcher’s stuff is just so overwhelming that it doesn’t matter what the batter knows, his success hinges on his own adjustments.
Pitching coach Roger McDowell said Teheran is “a strong young man mentally. There was some frustration from not being able to execute pitches. He did the work on the side and then carried that into games. But sometimes that’s hard and guys revert back to what’s comfortable and natural.”
Teheran was happy with his three-inning spring debut Wednesday against Houston, not withstanding the two runs and a Jason Castro homer he gave up to Jason Castro in the second inning. He retired the last six batters he faced.
He said he spent much of last season “trying to get out of the hole I was in.”
If he falls back in it, the Braves have problems.
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