During the season, Sundays are set aside to take a look at a prospect at random, but with the minor league season over, I wasn’t sure what to do for my Sunday article until this nugget of an idea came my way. How about we look at players who ranked in Baseball America’s Top 100 while part of the Braves’ organization, yet never appeared for the Braves? Over the next few months, I’ll take a look at the prospects that were traded or simply faded away and just to keep up with my theme, I randomized the players.
There was a time where Braves fans penciled J.R. Graham‘s name into future rotations. A right-hander with three quality pitches including a mid-90’s fastball, Graham reached Mississippi just a year after the Braves grabbed him in the 4th round of the 2011 draft. He was a big asset in a system with a dwindling amount of pitching prospects once the Big Four of Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and Arodys Vizcaino either made it to the bigs or were traded. But…that’s how far the story goes. Well, with the Braves at least.
Originally selected in the 46th round of the ’08 draft by the A’s, the California-born Graham decided to attend Santa Clara University instead. The Broncos have produced a lot of draftees (160 total), but only three have gone on to have a 10 WAR or better career according to Baseball-Reference with Randy Winn their most notable player. The last time the Braves selected a player from Santa Clara was back in 1990 when they selected generic infielder Ed Giovanola. But in 2011, Graham was still available for the Braves in the 4th round. The #146th overall pick was ranked by Baseball America as the 120th best prospect heading into the draft so that was good value for Frank Wren’s team.
After signing, Graham blitzed the APPY League over nearly 60 innings. He carried an impressive 4 K/BB ratio and gave up no homers in that time frame. His maturity and quick success prompted the Braves to push Graham past Rome so that he could start 2012 with the Lynchburg Hillcats. It worked rather well. In 17 starts, he duplicated his 4 K/BB rate in a bigger sample size (102.1 ING). His K’s fell, but so did his walks. He pitched well beyond his years and it almost seemed like he had yet to be challenged. Atlanta sought to solve that by promoting him to Mississippi to finish the year. The Braves under Wren often attached accelerated timetables to the college pitchers they selected and Graham was no different. With about 205 innings under his belt, he was just a step away from the majors.
At that time, Graham had an impressive collection of pitches with a mid-90’s fastball that had heavy sink on it. He kept hitters off balanced with a nice change-of-pace plus a swing-and-miss slider. If he could only stay healthy, he was going to remain a big part of the picture for the Braves.
Ah, but there’s the rub. 2013 was an eight-start shortened season where he dealt with shoulder issues, which caused his velocity to tail off. Going through adversity is not uncommon for Graham. He was born three months prematurely at just 2 pounds. He even stopped breathing in his father’s hands before being revived. Graham fights for every little thing he achieves and plays with a chip on his shoulders. An aggressive hurler, he earns the reputation as a bulldog. Now that he had control of his stuff, he wasn’t going to let an injury keep him down for long.
Unfortunately, his body disagreed. While theoretically healthy during much of 2014, shoulder problems are a very difficult thing for a pitcher to shake. The Braves tried to baby him, giving him a strict pitch limit to keep his innings down. He didn’t reached 70 pitches until his tenth start and after a good start to his season, his numbers began to decline. Graham would miss nearly a month of baseball before a late July return. After four brief starts, he moved to the bullpen and didn’t have much success there either. All told, he had a 5.58 ERA in 71 innings with a 1.9 K/BB rate.
After the season, the Braves and their new front office had some Rule 5 decisions to make. They chose to protect Yean Carlos Gil and Williams Perez over Graham and Cody Martin, another successful ex-college pitcher. While Gil would later be designated for assignment, keeping Perez turned out to be the right move as he would start 20 games for the Braves in 2015. Martin would pass through the Rule 5 draft and briefly looked good in the majors before being shipped out in a trade. Graham didn’t last nearly as long. The Twins selected him in the Rule 5.
A full-time move to the pen and a good offseason returned a lot of the velocity Graham had been missing. He was back in the mid-90’s with max speeds of 98 mph. A lot of people were upset with the Braves for letting him go for nothing. His early success with the Twins gave their disappointment more validity. After 1.1 innings with a K against the Reds on July 1, Graham had a 2.92 ERA over his first 22 games and 37 innings. The walks (11) were a bit high and homers (6) stood out, but he was showing some good things. He even made a spot start against the Brewers on June 6, going 4 innings and allowing a run on a homerun. However, things got ugly after July 1. Over his final 17 games, he gave up 23 runs in 26.2 ING. Relegated to only low-leverage innings, he pitched sparingly over the final weeks especially with the Twins trying to stay alive in the Wild Card race. He also missed a little time toward the end of August with shoulder troubles.
Much was made about the Braves’ decision to not protect Graham. Most of this is attached to fans overvaluing their team’s prospects. The Braves had a pitcher who, while clearly talented, was being sidetracked by shoulder issues. In today’s modern medicine world, it’s just a reality that it’s easier to fix ligament damage than shoulder trouble. The Braves made that point clear by picking Daniel Winkler in the same Rule 5 draft where Graham went to the Twins. Winkler, who was recovering from Tommy John surgery, was viewed as an asset to bet on versus Graham.
The Twins now don’t have to feel the need to keep Graham in the majors to satisfy the Rule 5 rules so we might see Graham back in the minors when 2016 opens. Always the fighter, it’s easy to root for Graham. But the chances that the Braves will regret losing him are pretty slim.