The Atlanta Braves are hoping for a bounceback season from a prized prospect to round out their rotation.
If spring training was any indication, Julio Teheran might yet turn into the pitcher he was once cracked up to be.
With a red-hot Justin Upton on his side, Teheran will try to carry his March exhibition momentum into April regular-season success Saturday night when he takes the ball for Atlanta against the visiting Chicago Cubs.
A year ago, Teheran was seen as the future ace of the Braves staff and, in some circles, was touted as the top starting pitching prospect in all of baseball. But great expectations soon gave way to a disappointing season in Triple-A and he was relegated to just two appearances with the big league club in 2012.
Things turned around this spring, however, when the No. 5 starter pitched more like someone at the top of the rotation. In his final Grapefruit League tune up, the rookie right-hander struck out 10 in six hitless innings, capping an exhibition season that saw him give up just seven hits over 26 innings while striking out 35.
"My first goal was to make the team from spring training and I did," Teheran said. "That was my motivation."
In six spring starts, he had an ERA of 1.04.
"You have to give Julio credit," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He had some adversity last year and is the better for it. He's matured."
Of course, if Upton keeps swinging the bat like he has in the season's first four games, Teheran won't need to be nearly that fine.
Upton hit his third home run Friday to back a strong performance by Mike Minor as Atlanta (3-1) won the series opener 4-1. The January trade for the left fielder has paid immediate dividends, adding depth to an already potent lineup.
"It's even fun to see him hit in the cage," said Andrelton Simmons. "You just watch and try to pick up stuff from him. He's really talented, and he has a nice swing. Everything is nice and smooth. He's going to do this all year."
Upton and the rest of the Braves lineup will look to continue their power surge against Carlos Villanueva, who will be making his first start for Chicago (2-2) after coming over from Toronto in another January deal, albeit one a bit less heralded.
The right-hander parlayed a 7-7 season for the Blue Jays into a two-year, $10 million contract with the Cubs. Comfortable both starting and relieving, he finds himself in the rotation as a result of Matt Garza beginning the year on the disabled list with a strained left lat.
Villanueva went five innings in his final spring training start, allowing four hits and one earned run.
"I have been very pleased with the (spring) results. I'm getting a lot more groundballs ... I'm happy and healthy and that's all that really matters," he said.
While Villanueva will likely have his hands full with Justin Upton, big brother B.J. continues to struggle for Atlanta. The elder Upton is 0 for 14 with nine strikeouts batting in the fifth spot.
Chicago's offense has been more productive, but not by much. It has totaled 16 hits, and the top four spots in the order Friday went just 1 for 14.
"Nobody's swinging the bats at all right now," manager Dale Sveum said. "Somebody's going to have to step up now and get hot. Hopefully it's the whole team, but we don't have a lot going offensively now."