3/10/2013 7:00 P.M. ET
Graham showing he has what it takes to start
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As the first three rounds of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft unfolded, J.R. Graham quickly learned teams were hesitant to take a chance on a 5-foot-11, 175-pound converted infielder who had just started pitching on a regular basis the previous year.
Blessed with a powerful right arm, Graham spent some time as an outfielder and reliever during his 2009 freshman season at Santa Clara University. He primarily served as the school's closer the next two seasons and ended up compiling just five starts in his collegiate career.
While some clubs might have been reluctant to use an early selection on the less than physically imposing pitcher, the Braves were more than willing to rely on the savvy advice provided by veteran scout Tommy Davis, who had first seen Graham begin to flash his potential at Livermoore High School, located approximately 30 minutes east of Oakland, Calif.
"When we got to that pick, we had two players in our hand that we were ready to pick," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "Tommy said we're not going to find an arm in the fourth round like this. Let's wait around on the other guy because he had seen both of them. It was very good that he said that because the other guy, as much as we like him, he hasn't had the same start to his pro career that J.R. has had."
Two years after being selected with the 146th overall selection in the 2011 Draft, Graham finds himself impressing during his first big league camp and preparing to enter this season as one of Atlanta's top pitching prospects. In fact, some talent evaluators believe his future is every bit as bright as right-handed pitcher Julio Teheran, who is listed as the Braves' No.1 prospect according to MLB.com.
"The kid has plenty of stuff to be real successful up at the Major League level," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
Graham has displayed his potential while surrendering five hits and working seven scoreless innings in his first Spring Training at the big league level. The 23-year-old right-hander has issued three walks while notching four strikeouts with the help of a plus fastball that registered 102 miles per hour on the slightly-generous gun at Joker Marchant Stadium on Feb. 27.
While Graham has certainly generated some attention with the fastball that has more accurately topped out at 98 or 99 mph, the approach he has taken as a reliever the past couple of weeks is little different than the one he displayed while combining to go 12-2 with a 2.82 ERA in 26 starts with Class A Advanced Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi last year.
"I think what is interesting is we've seen him become more of a thrower all spring and not pitch," Wren said. "We've all seen him pitch. I think it's just an adrenaline rush, being in big league camp and trying to show what he can do. He's not trying to pitch as much as we would like."
While allowing two hits and recording two strikeouts in the final two innings of Sunday's 10-2 loss to the Marlins, Graham appeared to be more composed than he had been during his first three appearances. But regardless of the level he is at or the role (starter or reliever) he is filling, the young pitcher has proven that he will always be a high-energy pitcher, who has the ability to impress with radar gun readings.
"If I get in that starting role, I can cruise for seven or eight innings at the 95 range and bump it up to 98 if I need to," Graham said.
This was exactly what Wren witnessed when he traveled to watch one of Graham's Minor League starts last year.
"The last guy he struck out, he was at 97 and he was pretty much 95-98 all night long," Wren said. "He maintains his stuff. He's athletic and strong. Those are all the hallmarks of a starter. There's a lot of guys who can light up a gun for an inning or two and then their stuff starts to diminish to the point where it is just average when you get deeper into a game. He's not one of those guys at this point."
Graham has made just nine starts above the Class A level and a total of 34 as a professional. When accounting for the five starts he made at Santa Clara, he has made a total of 39 starts since his high school days.
While there is a chance Graham could end up as a reliever, he has provided indication that he could prove successful as a starter. He began this steady progression during his final year at Santa Clara, when he made his first start on April 10, 2011 and concluded that season with 8 2/3 strong innings against Pepperdine.
"Our guys felt he had the chance to develop into a starter," Wren said. "He's a really good athlete which allows him to do a lot of things on the mound. Some guys wilt with a regular routine and some guys get stronger. He's one of those guys who has gotten stronger. It's worked out really well for us."
Graham will likely begin this season as a starter at Mississippi and then possibly get a promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett. If he continues to impress, he could soon find himself pitching in Atlanta alongside Tim Hudson, the pitcher he began idolizing while growing up in suburban Oakland.
As Hudson exited the bullpen before a start he made for the A's in Oakland during the 1999 season, he tossed a ball to Graham, who was just nine years old and already developing his love for the game of baseball.
Now as Hudson nears the end of his career, Graham finds himself attending his first big league camp with his idol and brimming with the confidence that they could soon be part of the same pitching staff.
"He's been the pitcher that I've looked up to," Graham said. "I probably kind of aged him a little bit when I told him I was nine when I used to go to Oakland games and that I wanted to be just like him. Now, 14 or 15 years later, being in the same locker room, I guess the stars were aligned. It couldn't have played out any better."
Stay tuned. If all goes right, Graham could soon find out that this story does indeed get better.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.