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July 3, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Bring Me the Head of Julio Teheran

by Jason Parks

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The Backstory
Viewed by many in the industry as the best pitcher available in the 2007 international market, Colombia native Julio Teheran signed with the Braves for an $850K bonus, and those distinctions placed expectations on the young arm before his first professional pitch. The hype exploded after the 16-year-old flashed low-to-mid 90s heat, two plus potential secondary offerings, and impressive overall feel for the mound during the instructional league campaign, with scouts leaving his appearances with superlatives bulging from their khakis. He looked too good to be true.

Before Teheran could build on his instructional league coming out party, shoulder tendinitis put the brakes on his 2008 season, and the Braves protected their investment by limiting the 17-year-old to only six short-season starts. Despite the shoulder concerns, the total package was still turning heads, as the command profile looked above-average, the fastball was working in the low-90s with relative ease, the curve was showing a tight rotation and depth, and the changeup was emerging as his best offering, a pitch with excellent deception out of the hand and late action to the arm side.

The 2009 season saw Teheran return to the Appalachian League for seven starts before getting the push to full-season ball, where the 18-year-old continued to wow all eyes that happen to observe the prize. Despite a wiry frame that could best be described as immature, Teheran was able to display impressive velocity, working anywhere from 91-96 mph with his fastball. His feel for pitching was just as impressive as his raw stuff, and scouts and prognosticators alike were starting to throw frontline projections on him.

The Braves took the governor off the young arm in 2010, and Teheran exploded into the rarified air of the prospect world. Spanning three levels, the 19-year-old shoved a 93-97 mph fastball down hitters’ throats, learned to miss more bats with his ever-improving curveball, and his changeup continued to be a monster pitch. Teheran’s control was sharp, his command was refining, and he showed a mature feel for setting up hitters with sequence. Questions remained about his delivery and his frame, as the former could get a bit jerky and noisy, and the body still appeared under-developed, so more strength would be necessary in order to handle a major league workload. But as a 19-year-old kid who finished the season at the Double-A level, the future was all rosy and newlywed. The Braves were now owners of the top right-handed pitching prospect in the game.

Despite having only 40 Double-A innings under his belt, Teheran started the 2011 season at the Triple-A level, where the 20-year-old was excellent, although not exceptional enough for some. His raw stuff was still above average, the control was sharp and the command was present, the feel remained, and he logged a career high 145 innings at the spot, proving his doubters wrong that his body couldn’t handle the workload. Early in the season, Teheran was called to the majors to make a few emergency spot starts, which unfortunately helped shape the narrative for the rest of the year. As a 20-year-old with very limited experience in the upper minors, making a jump to the major league level is beyond any definition of difficult, yet Teheran had the necessary poise and fortitude to handle the assignment. The results were more than acceptable given his level of development, but the label of top prospect brought upon expectations that could only be satisfied by a performance so sensational that the Braves would be forced to keep Teheran at the major league level for the rest of the season, give him a long-term contract, and encourage all children born after his first start to bear his name. Teheran ended up making five major league appearances on the season, including three starts, and in those brief 20 innings he didn’t change the world, so the newlywed bliss eroded into the night and some within the industry questioned his frontline status.

A return to Triple-A was in the cards for Teheran in 2012, and so far the results haven’t matched the promise. The 21-year-old righty is still well ahead of the developmental curve, but his on-the-field production has taken a step back, as the stuff is finding more barrels than in previous seasons; he's allowing more hits, more home runs, and is striking out fewer hitters. Given his age and level, his results should be considered promising, but Teheran’s bar of success is extremely high, and anything short of domination is a disappointment. In June, Teheran made another spot start at the major league level. In four innings, he allowed four earned runs, and the prospect world sat on the sidelines in cold judgment. Despite striking out five hitters in those 4.1 innings, the appearance wasn’t applauded, and his prospect stock continued to slip.

The Expectations
As noted, Teheran entered professional ball with $850K worth of expectations on his 16-year-old back, labeled by many as the best pitcher on the international market. Those expectations were muted [somewhat] in the first few years of his career, as an injury setback and a short-season assignment kept things on the simmer, but he fully erupted into a full boil in 2010, and the rest is history. From a 6’2’’ 170 lb. frame, Teheran shows a plus arsenal and a feel for execution, working in the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball, showing multiple breaking ball looks, a hard curve, and a changeup that might be his best offering, a deceptive pitch that shows late fading action to the arm side. The total package points to a frontline starter, a potential number one, with more than enough stuff, excellent feel for control and command, and the poise and intensity to handle the pressures of the role.

The Quotes
“Signed out of Colombia for $850,000 in 2007, Teheran is already making that figure look like a bargain, establishing himself not just as a future No. 1 starter but as the best pitching prospect in baseball.” – Keith Law, (February 2011)

“Teheran has everything it takes to be a elite starting pitcher. His fastball sits at 93-95 mph while touching 98, and he already has a changeup that rates as plus with plenty of depth and fade. His curveball is a tick above-average, and all of his offerings play up due to his ability to throw all of them for strikes at any point in the count, with an ultra-smooth delivery no less…….Few prospects have true ace-level, front-of-the-rotation starter potential, but Teheran is one of them.” –Kevin Goldstein (February 2011)

“Comparisons to a young Pedro Martinez are commonplace, and Teheran’s biggest backers think he’s more advanced at the same stage of his career.” Baseball America (2011 Prospect Handbook)

“Julio Teheran started as an abstract dream on the diamonds of Colombia, but has developed into his reality as a big-league organization's crown jewel in short order. How often does an $850,000 investment in a 16-year-old mature into a legit blue-chip prospect, knocking on the door of the majors? How often does that prospect arrive carrying the same sky-high projection he started with as an amateur? Not very often.” –Me (March 2011)

So What Happened?
I have to admit, I was shocked to receive so many Julio Teheran nominations for this series.  I understand that he hasn’t ascended to the majors at the same developmental velocity in which he shot up the minors, but the kid is only 21 and the future is still as bright as ever. Of course, my seat is firmly planted on his bandwagon, so I view the setbacks of the season as part of the developmental journey and not as abject failures in the scouting reports.

The upper minors (and majors) have a way of highlighting the weaknesses of a skill set; in Teheran’s case, the quality of his breaking ball and the movement of his fastball were exposed. The curve has always been a pitch that would flash above-average potential, but never found the consistency necessary to hold firm at that distinction. At times, the young arm would struggle to stay on top of the offering, and the once tight breaker with depth would flatten out and lose its bite. Scouts have been mixed on this pitch for years, yet still projected Teheran as a frontline starter based on the fact that fastball/changeup combo were easy plus offerings, and the curve still had room to develop into a solid-average or better pitch. The need for a more consistent breaking ball wasn’t as mandatory in the lower levels of the minors, where his explosive two-pitch mix made the fringy offering play up in sequence, and the flash of the breaker was intense enough to convince overwhelmed hitters it was fire. At the upper levels, the quality of the pitch was exposed, and Teheran lost a much-needed dimension to his sequence.

On the fastball front, Teheran has more than enough mustard to dominate hitters with suspect bat speed; he routinely works in the lower 90s, but finds 96 mph with relative ease and, in short bursts, can touch even higher. The problem with velocity—in a vacuum—is that good hitters can hit good velocity, which makes location and movement important parts of the equation. I’ve mentioned Teheran’s feel for control/command, but it’s the movement and visibility of the fastball that has lead to some exploitation. Because of his delivery and release, some hitters have been able to pick up the ball early out of Teheran’s hand, and because the pitch has a tendency to straighten out, it can be tracked and squared up. The better the hitter, the smaller the margin of error, and with an inconsistent breaking ball and a fastball that lacks a lot of wiggle, Teheran isn’t helping to shift those odds.

I’m still a firm believer in Teheran’s future. His breaking ball isn’t a terrible pitch, as it still flashes the same characteristics that prompted scouts to suggest it had above-average potential. He just needs more time to develop it and find the right feel. His fastball is still a plus offering, and learning to induce movement or disguise it in the delivery is much easier than learning how to throw 93-96 mph. He is a hard worker with a lot of moxie in his approach, which has allowed him to suffer a few setbacks without losing his head. His raw stuff was so good at such a young age that it's easy to forget that it takes a lot of time to develop into a pitcher. Failure is a big piece of the developmental puzzle, and even though top prospects might lose some their shine as they advance, the ones that emerge stronger are the ones who transition from great prospects into great players. I would expect to see Teheran fall 10-15 spots in national prospect rankings, and I would suggest that is an accurate temperature of the moment. But, as I stated earlier, I remain on the Teheran bandwagon, and I still view him as a top 10 prospect.

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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