Braves’ young arms compete for No. 5 spot

It seems like a question with a simple answer.

Who will be the Braves’ fifth starter until Brandon Beachy returns from Tommy John surgery? What looked to be a spring training battle waged between Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran took on a different complexion after Delgado was traded to the Diamondbacks last week in the seven-player deal that brought Justin Upton to Atlanta.

With days to go before pitchers and catchers report for camp, Teheran is clearly the favorite – but he’s not the only one of the Braves’ heralded young arms gunning for the spot.

Listed as the organization’s top prospect for the third year running by Baseball America, Teheran, 22, has had “can’t miss” and “ace in waiting” accolades heaped on him for years. The righty, though, is coming off a season in which he went 7-9 with a 5.08 ERA and allowed 18 home runs in 131 innings for Triple-A Gwinnett and this comes after going 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA and just five home runs allowed in 144 1/3 innings in 2011. 

In four major league starts and seven appearances overall Teheran has a 5.19 ERA.

“I think he fell in love with lighting up a radar gun, and got away from being a pitcher for half a season,” general manager Frank Wren said earlier this month of Teheran’s struggles. “It’s just one of those things where you never know what’s going through a young guy’s head.”

Potential? Check. Major-league experience? Check. Teheran has the leg up, but don’t discount Sean Gilmartin and J.R. Graham.

This will be the second spring training invitation for Gilmartin, the lefty who was the Braves’ first-round pick out of Florida State in 2011. The team’s fourth-rated prospect, Gilmartin pieced together solid but unspectacular numbers in stints at Double-A Mississippi and Gwinnett last season, going 6-10 with a 3.84 ERA and he’s hoping to capitalize on that exposure.

“I think it’s just more me getting out there and showing what I have,” Gilmartin said. “There’s more for me to show now that it’s my second year as opposed to last year they already had an idea of what they wanted to do with me and now it’s ‘What can I do?’ So it’s time for me to show them what I’m capable of doing.”

He’s not a hard thrower, possessing a fastball that tops out in the upper 80s, but his touch is evident with a 2.2 walks per nine innings (BB/9) in ’12. Gilmartin has drawn comparisons to the likes of Mike Minor and Tom Glavine and could wind up being Teheran’s biggest competition at camp.

Then there’s Graham, the Braves’ second-ranked player behind Teheran, who was picked in the fourth round out of Santa Clara in the same draft as Gilmartin. 

Deemed undersized at 6-foot, 200 pounds, he’s a flamethrower with a 100 mph fastball, averaging 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings last year, including 8.3 at Double-A. He’s also shown excellent control with a BB/9 of 2.1. Overall, he was 12-2 with a 2.80 ERA in 148 innings in Lynchburg and Mississippi last season.

But in making his big-league camp debut, Graham is keeping things simple, even if the possibilities have changed after the Delgado trade. 

“I’m just going to do my thing and hope for the best,” Graham said. “I haven’t really talked (to any of the other players) about it, but I want to go and build off these guys and the experience of big-league time and what they do and try to make myself a better pitcher.” 

Of course there’s always the potential that the Braves could sign a veteran to fill in for Beachy.

Roy Oswalt says he still wants to pitch, free agents Kyle Lohse and Joe Saunders remain unsigned and CBS Sports’ Mike Axisa suggests the team should consider bringing back Javier Vazquez. The 36-year-old, who has yet to make a decision if he’ll return from a one-year hiatus, has impressed this winter in Puerto Rico as he preps for the World Baseball Classic. He’s undergoing knee surgery and is expected to miss 2-3 weeks 

But any of those moves seems unlikely and this is a role the Braves will likely fill from within. 

Will it be Teheran? Gilmartin? Graham? It figures to be the most intriguing storyline to watch this spring.