Last season, Gerald Laird sat in front of his locker in the Atlanta Braves’ clubhouse and discussed rookie pitcher Julio Teheran’s improving defense, but his comments eventually hit on some all-inconclusive points concerning the pitching profession. The veteran catcher has caught plenty of excellent pitchers in what is now his 11th season in the major leagues, and he had an idea of what makes certain guys successful.
"I think the guys that want to be great at pitching take it in as a whole," Laird said. "They wanna be good at everything."
Teheran, 23, fits that mold according to Laird, who caught the Braves top prospect 13 times in 2013. The Columbian native has made a fast rise through the organization’s ranks after a stellar first full season in the majors — he took the mound as one of the youngest Opening Day starters in franchise history on Monday against the Brewers — and a few of those qualities were on display. He still has the top-of-the-rotation stuff (though not all of it was there on Monday), he limits damage with runners on base and he competes with every pitch. In short, the sophomore pitched well.
But, thanks in large part to a complete lack of run support and a rocky fourth inning, the Teheran-led Braves dropped the first game of the season, 2-0.
For the most part, Teheran looked like the No. 1 or No. 2 starter the team expects him to be after handing him a six-year contract extension (potentially seven-year extension with an option) this offseason. He went six innings allowing two earned runs on seven hits. His strikeouts were uncharacteristically low (two of his 18 logged outs), but he offset that with just one walk.
"I thought he was outstanding, really. Pitched six strong innings, gave up two runs. … Starting pitcher, they’ll get in jams every once in a while. And, at the end, if he can get through those innings then I think he’ll be fine. And he did," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I think he did a terrific job."
Milwaukee’s lineup was not a juggernaut last season, but running through Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Jonathan Lucroy at the top of the lineup is not a simple matter. It’s the 10th loss of his young career, but Teheran is clearly off on the right foot in 2014. It was far from his best effort, but it was a perfect illustration of how far he’s come in 12 short months. Contrast his effort against Milwaukee with his April numbers last year:
It wasn’t exactly "ace" material — the title the Braves tried so hard to avoid last season — but these are the types of performances the Braves will need from Teheran this season. It’s just the first game in what projects to be a 30-start season (so keep everything in perspective), but with Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy out for the season and Ervin Santana, Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd still getting into game shape for various reasons, Teheran being good to go, if not perfect, from Day One is nothing but good news.
There’s more pressure on his shoulders this time around. Behind him sits both inexperience (Alex Wood, David Hale) and unknown reliability (Aaron Harang).
He’s the guy for now (at least for the first couple times through the rotation); he has the ability to be the guy for the rest of the season when he’s at his best. He was worth 2.4 wins above replacement last season — could he take the next step a three- or four-win guy? He might need to be if the Nationals are as good as advertised right out of the gate.
But, if Laird is correct, do not expect this start to be "good enough" for Teheran. He got himself into jams by putting too many guys on base, didn’t limit potential problems through strikeouts and he left a few too many breaking balls over the plate. Producitve, but not sharp. That can all be corrected. Complacency doesn’t seem to be an issue with the young right-hander.
Julio Teheran has picked up where he left off. The Braves, despite starting the season on the wrong end of the standings, are in a better position for it.