Julio Teheran is making things difficult for the Braves. After Teheran struggled through his first three starts of the season, in which he served up five home runs and allowed 13 runs in 16 innings, the course looked clear: ride out Teheran’s starts until Brandon Beachy’s return from Tommy John surgery on June 18, then send the 44th-best prospect (per Baseball America) back to Triple-A for much-needed seasoning.
Things aren’t so clear any more. Teheran carried a no-hitter through 7 2/3 innings against Pittsburgh on Wednesday in the best start of his career: eight shutout innings, one lone hit, two walks, two hit batters and 11 strikeouts.
Teheran has been nasty since his fourth start, a seven-inning, one-run affair April 23 at Coors Field. Since then, Teheran hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a start, and he has thrown at least 5 1/3 innings in all eight. Over 55 innings, he owns a spectacular 2.13 ERA backed up by 43 strikeouts and just eight walks.
This is what Teheran was supposed to be last year. In 2010, at age 19, he posted a 2.59 ERA and struck out 159 in 142 2/3 innings between Low-A, High-A and Double-A. He didn’t skip a beat as a 20-year-old at Triple-A Gwinnett — he struck out 122 and recorded a 2.55 ERA over 144 2/3 innings. The average hitter he faced in the International League was six years older than him.
Teheran came into spring training in 2012 looking like a lock for the fifth starter job. The Braves gave him every chance to show he deserved a shot at the major leagues. He responded by throwing nine home runs and eight walks against 10 strikeouts in five appearances. He finished with a 9.37 ERA and the boot back to Gwinnett. The collapse continued: Teheran finished with a 5.08 ERA in his second swing through Triple-A. He allowed 13 more home runs than the previous season and struck out 25 fewer batters in two extra starts.
The lesson? Never give up on top-tier stuff, especially when its owner is as young as Teheran was in 2012. At age 21, the Braves didn’t just ask him to contribute, they asked him to keep learning. Between mechanical tweaks, the weight of expectations, and youth, a down year for Teheran comes into perspective. These things happen.
Braves general manager Frank Wren took a trip down to the Dominican Republic in December to check out some of his players in the Dominican Winter League, including Teheran. The Colombian pitched well for Licey, his Winter League team — he struck out 24 and allowed a 3.23 ERA over 30 2/3 innings — but more important was the flow Teheran discovered (or perhaps rediscovered) in his pitching motion:
“We wanted him to get back to a more natural delivery where he’s not thinking about his mechanics, and I think he’s accomplished that,” Wren said. “His mechanics were very good. He looked much more natural and like he did two years ago.”
The Braves are now presented with a problem quite familiar for the franchise: too many starting pitchers. With Teheran’s season ERA down to 3.30 following Wednesday’s gem, the Braves now have four starters with ERAs under 3.70 — Paul Maholm, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor along with Teheran — and the Opening Day starter, Tim Hudson. In two weeks, they’ll add Brandon Beachy, the owner of a 3.07 ERA over 237 2/3 career innings and a 2.00 ERA in 13 starts last season.
Even with Teheran’s hot streak, he’s probably the easiest to demote. He has options remaining and it would allow all the senior rotation members to keep their jobs while Teheran stays stretched out at Gwinnett. But Teheran simply might be too good right now to demote, and his upside is the highest of anybody in the organization, much less the current rotation.
If it isn’t Teheran, and since elder statesman Tim Hudson isn’t going anywhere despite his 4.80 ERA, the answer is probably Kris Medlen. As anti-meritocratic as it might seem — Medlen owns a 1.96 ERA with 138 strikeouts over his last 24 starts, dating back to last July — there are serious questions about Medlen’s ability to stay healthy as a starter. Medlen has spent his career bouncing back and forth between starting and relieving due to these durability concerns, and he’s already missed a full season due to Tommy John surgery back in 2011.
The best argument for moving Medlen, however, at least in terms of the 2013 Braves winning baseball games, is his experience and success as a reliever. In 129 2/3 career relief innings, Medlen owns a 2.92 ERA with a 3.0 strikeouts to walks ratio. He has allowed just five home runs as a reliever against 27 as a starter in twice as many innings. The Braves have had some tough injuries to relievers — Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty in particular — and so Medlen might look mighty nice next to Craig Kimbrel and Jordan Walden in the bullpen.
Either way, the Braves win here. Teheran’s struggles in 2012 made it look like there was a pitching shortage in Atlanta coming into 2013. When Beachy makes his return in two weeks, the Braves will have more pitching than they know what to do with. In Atlanta? That’s just baseball season.