Baseball scouting is a tricky business. Your eyes and the numbers can tell you a story that you believe to be true. When looking at a young player your mind can project them into whatever it wants. The power hitter who cannot make contact will eventually develop his hit tool, and hit 30 homeruns a year in the majors. That player throwing 95 miles per hour with suspect command will eventually clean up his delivery and develop into the ace you are imagining. It’s a sure thing, you just know it is. This kid cannot miss.
As we know, this does not always happen. Prospects struggle all the time. They fail to develop, they get hurt, and in many cases they just are not good enough. Other times the road is longer and more winding than you expected it to be. Sometimes a player ends up finding success in a role that is different from the role they were projected to fill.
The Atlanta Braves drafted Graham in the fourth round of the 2011 MLB Draft out of Santa Clara University. He excelled right from the start, posting a 1.72 ERA and striking out 52 batters in 57.2 innings with the Danville Braves. Back then Graham was being groomed as a starting pitcher.
2012 saw Graham move up a level to the Lynchburg Hillcats. With Lynchburg Graham began to cement his status as a top rated prospect. Graham started all 17 games he played in for Lynchburg and compiled a 2.63 ERA over 102.2 innings. That performance was good enough to earn him a promotion to Mississippi to finish out the season. Once in Double-A Graham still pitched well, finishing with a 3.18 ERA in 9 starts.
His successful 2012 season saw him rise to the top of many prospect rankings. FanGraphs ranked him as the number two prospect in the entire Atlanta Braves organization, behind Julio Teheran. Teheran would become a full-time major leaguer that season, making Graham the top prospect for the Braves. Mark Bowman would even write a feature before the season about how Graham was proving he was capable of starting at the big league level. Marc Hulet of FanGraphs offered this scouting report of him before the 2013 season.
His 92-96 mph fastball explodes out of his compact delivery.
When I saw Graham pitch, his shoulder was flying open at times, causing his pitches to elevate and opposing batters were taking some very good swings on his four-seam fastball. He utilized a very fastball-heavy approach. He threw some solid sliders, including a back-door breaking ball to a left-handed hitter. Graham’s changeup looked better than advertised. The right-hander reached double-A in his first full pro season and, after making just nine starts there, should briefly return to the level before moving up to triple-A in 2013. He has the ceiling of a No. 2 or 3 starter.
Unfortunately injuries would mar his first full season in Double-A. A shoulder strain he suffered in May led to worse than usual performance out of Graham (he was likely dealing with the injury before it sidelined him), and limited him 35.2 innings that season.
This season saw even more struggles for Graham. Injuries have crept up a few times and he has not performed well for the majority of the season. He began the season as a starter, but recently the Braves have started using him out of the bullpen. For the 2014 season Graham has a 5.55 ERA and the lowest strikeout rate of his career, but he has failed to allow a run in his last three relief appearances. After being held down by various injuries he finally seems to be fully healthy and settling into a role. With Jason Hursh and Lucas Sims developing nicely, and eventually needing a spot in the rotation, the bullpen may be a good spot for Graham.
J.R. Graham is the perfect example of the difficult nature of player development. All signs in his early career pointed to him being a top of the rotation starting pitcher. He has all the tools to become a successful starting pitcher in the major leagues, but his body will not let him. He still may develop into a starter down the road, but for now it looks as Graham will attempt to revive his career as a reliever.
Hopefully next season is a healthier season for J.R. Graham. With the Mississippi Braves barely missing the playoffs Graham now has time to rest up and prepare for 2015. He is clearly a very talented pitcher, and when he is at one hundred percent the ball explodes out of his hand. As Alan noted in his piece this morning, shifting to the bullpen fulltime will allow his stuff to “play up” as they say, and potentially turn him into a dominant late inning reliever. Perhaps by this time next season he will join Craig Kimbrel, and Shae Simmons as homegrown flamethrowers making an impact in the Braves pen.