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Atlanta Braves: Julio Teheran One to Watch in 2013

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COMMENTARY | Who led the MLB in strikeouts during spring training last season?

The only correct answer to that question is "who cares?" Spring training is the tee-bell equivalent of Major League Baseball. There is no point in keeping score, everyone is just trying not to get hurt, and there are always juice boxes and orange slices awaiting the players after each game.

Still, even though the games don't matter, it is a good sign for Atlanta Braves fans to look up and see that the man on the top of the strikeout leaderboard is none other than, prospective No. 5 starter, Julio Teheran.

After striking out 10 batters in six hitless innings of work in the Braves' 3-2 victory over the Houston Astros on Saturday, March 23, Teheran has now gone three separate outings this spring without surrendering a single hit. In all, Teheran has allowed just seven total hits in 26 innings while striking out 35. Since Tommy Hanson is now the Los Angeles Angels' problem, Teheran is going to be given the opportunity to notch a serious number of meaningful innings for the Braves this season.

Teheran, 22, had two short stints with the Braves in 2011 and 2012, but neither call-up proved to translate all of his minor-league potential into major-league success. In seven MLB appearances, Teheran has posted an ERA of 5.19.

But Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez thinks Teheran has finally turned a corner and is expecting him to be much closer to the pitcher who currently has a 1.04 ERA this spring.

"Two years ago when I first saw the young man, everybody was talking about the big arm," Gonzalez said, "and he came out and was trying to light up the radar gun every single pitch. I think he's matured past that now. … He's been terrific. He's got four quality major-league pitches, where a couple of years ago it was one -- and barely one, because he couldn't even command the fastball back then."

Teheran has long been the one organizational pitching prospect whom general manager Frank Wren refused to part with. He traded Arodys Vizcaino to the Chicago Cubs in a deal for Paul Maholm in 2012. He also packaged Randall Delgado with Martin Prado in an offseason trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks. But Teheran has been the untouchable commodity whom the Braves did not want to see moved, and it is easy to see why. Baseball America has Teheran ranked as Atlanta's No. 1 prospect entering the 2013 season.

Teheran's importance to the Braves' staff will be significantly magnified this season. The Braves' rotation will be filled with a lot of dependable arms, but no true ace. Brandon Beachy would have been thought of as the Braves' No. 1, but Tommy John surgery has derailed the start of his 2013 season until, presumably, mid-June. Kris Medlen is healthy and will look to build on the success of the 10-1 record he posted in 2012, but he is still slightly wet behind the ears as well. Medlen has only 30 career starts under his belt. The opening-day nod has been given to the wily veteran Tim Hudson, who, at age 37, went 16-7 with a 3.62 ERA last season. Mike Minor and Paul Maholm will round out the other two slots in the Braves' stable of starting pitchers.

Thanks to the acquisitions of B.J. Upton and Justin Upton, the Braves' offense has a chance to be one of the best in the league. However, if Atlanta hopes to contend in the challenging NL East -- which has become one of the deepest pitching divisions in all of baseball -- it is going to need the backend of its rotation to step up big.

The performance of Julio Teheran will likely say a lot about whether the Braves will be contending for the NL East crown, or fighting for another wild-card berth in 2013.

Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.

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