ATLANTA -- Right-hander J.R. Graham and center fielder Todd Cunningham were honored as the Braves' Minor League Pitcher and Player of the Year in a pregame ceremony Saturday. The Braves also honored a pitcher and player of the year for each of their seven Minor League affiliates.
Graham, ranked sixth among Braves prospects by MLB.com, had served primarily as a closer in his junior year at Santa Clara before the Braves made him their fourth-round pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. This season, the Braves put Graham in the rotation at Class A Lynchburg, where he excelled. He was named to the Carolina League All-Star team and was promoted to Double-A Mississippi in late July.
Graham said the transition to the rotation was an easy one.
"Finding a routine was the biggest key to this year to get used to the starting pitching role," Graham said. "All in all, it was a lot of fun. You had a set routine, a set schedule."
Graham uses a hard two-seam fastball that he throws in the mid-90s as his primary weapon, mixing in a slider and changeup. Though Graham said his two-seamer doesn't generate enough sink to be called a sinker, it creates lots of groundball outs. His ground ball-to-fly ball ratio was 2.24 this season, helping him to a 12-2 record with a 2.80 ERA in 148 innings between the two levels.
After making a two-level jump this season, Graham said he is hopeful he can do so again next year and reach the Major Leagues.
"You want to get here as soon as you can," Graham said. "I'd love to be here next year. But if not, oh well, next year."
While Graham was a late arrival at Mississippi this season, Cunningham -- the No. 13 Braves prospect as ranked by MLB.com -- spent his whole season as their center fielder. Cunningham hit .309 and came close to winning the Southern League batting title, before getting caught in the final week by Rays prospect Omar Luna who finished with a .314 average to win the crown.
"All you really do is take your at bats the way you've been taking them all year and hope that it works out," Cunningham said. "Any time you start adding extra pressure for yourself, it just makes it that much harder. It's all about just taking your at bats the way you've been taking them all year."
Had Cunningham won the batting title, a member of the Braves' organization would have won batting titles in both Double-A and Triple-A. Left fielder Jose Constanza hit .314 to win the crown in the International League. Cunningham joked that next year he would try Constanza's Mohawk haircut to put him over the top.
While Cunningham's batting average stands out on paper, manager Fredi Gonzalez said he noticed Cunningham's fielding prowess during Spring Training.
"He can play some center field," Gonzalez said. "He got good jumps and he can go get them in the outfield for a guy who's not a burner."
All 16 Minor Leaguers honored by the Braves were presented their awards by general manager Frank Wren before Saturday's game against the Nationals. In addition to Graham and Cunningham, the group included left-hander Sean Gilmartin and shortstop Nick Ahmed, the Braves' first two picks of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft.
Kimbrel's 10-pitch frame an impressive feat
ATLANTA -- As he constructed his dominant ninth inning in Friday night's 2-1 win over the Nationals, Craig Kimbrel nearly became the first pitcher in Braves history to throw just nine pitches while striking out the only three batters he faced in a game.
Kimbrel's bid to throw the minimum nine pitches ended when Ian Desmond fouled an 0-2 fastball with two outs in the ninth inning. Desmond struck out one pitch later to end the impressive 10-pitch outing that included nothing but strikes.
"Once I threw six [pitches], I realized it, but my goal is just to get three outs," Kimbrel said. "Nine pitches would have been cool, but 10 is just as good."
The last Major League pitcher to throw just nine pitches while striking out the only three batters faced in a game was Philadelphia's Juan Perez against the Braves on July 8, 2011.
Instead of matching that unbreakable record, Kimbrel joined Billy Wagner as the only Braves' pitchers to throw just 10 pitches while striking out the only three batters faced in a game. Wagner, who served as Kimbrel's mentor two years ago, accomplished this when he notched his 400th save against the Tigers on June 25, 2010.
Chipper draws Maddux comparison for Medlen
ATLANTA -- Kris Medlen is a long way from being lumped into the same category as Greg Maddux. But the more Chipper Jones watches Medlen go about his business, the more he is persuaded to compare him to Maddux.
"You're starting to see the Greg Maddux effect," Jones said. "He's the closest thing I've seen to Maddux for the simple fact that he has a devastating changeup. Maddux would kill you with command of his fastball and cutter early in the count and then put you away with his changeup.
"Medlen is able to make the ball start off the plate and come back on the corner. The one difference is that Maddux could make the ball go both ways on both sides of the plate. Medlen doesn't have the cutter, but he has a better breaking ball than Maddux did. The approach to getting people out is the same."
Medlen's results over the past six weeks have also been quite similar to those that Maddux produced during his finest years with the Braves.
Medlen has compiled a 0.86 ERA and limited opponents to a .202 batting average in the nine starts since making the move from the bullpen to the starting rotation. He notched a career-high 13 strikeouts in Friday night's win over the Nationals and has totaled 25 strikeouts in 16 innings during his past two starts at Turner Field.
The Braves activated Ben Sheets from the disabled list on Saturday. Sheets, who was shelved on Aug. 25 with right shoulder inflammation, will be available to work out of the bullpen during the remainder of the season. There currently is no plan for him to make another start this season.
Standing room only tickets, available for $20, remain for Chipper Jones Tribute Night, which will be celebrated before and during the Sept. 28 game against the Mets. Seats still remain for the final two regular-season home games against the Mets on Sept. 29 and 30.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. Teddy Cahill is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.