Sunday, July 21, 2013

Random Prospect of the Day: J.R. Graham

Sometimes, I get middle relievers or backup catchers in this series, but today, we have one of the top prospects in the system, even if he's a little hurt right now.

J.R. Graham, was born in Livermore, California near the San Francisco Bay, and graduated from the same high school that produced Randy Johnson.  If you're curious, the J.R. is short for Jonathan Ryan.  Graham made an immediate impression on professional scouts and the Oakland A's took a flier on Graham with a 46th rounder, possibly hoping the youngster would be interested in staying close to home.  Instead, Graham honored his scholarship offer from Santa Clara and joined the Broncos.  As a freshman in 2009, Graham struggled with his first taste of college ball, posting a 1.97 WHIP in 19 games, all out of the pen.  He was also used as two-way player, getting 16 starts in right field in which he hit .228 with a homer.

Much more was expected in his sophomore season, though a terrible midseason slump hurt his ERA.  He saved four games, but his WHIP actually went up to 2.01 and his strikeout numbers fell to 6.9 K/9 after 9.3 K/9 during his freshman season.  He again was used as a two-way player, especially early, and played third base.  He gave up the offensive side of his game in 2011 and responded with his best season, posting a 1.00 WHIP with an absurd 1.3 BB/9 to go with a 6.3 K/9.  He even started five games for the Broncos.  That campaign was enough to hear his name called again in June as the Braves selected him with their fourth round pick, signing him for almost $175,000 and sending him to Danville to get his feet wet.

Graham quickly produced at Danville, getting eight starts and 13 games overall with a 1.13 WHIP, 2.0 BB/9, and 8.1 K/9.  Impressively, he didn't allow a homer in 57.2 innings.  So far, so good.  The Braves pushed him ahead to Lynchburg to open 2012, bypassing a stop at Rome, and in his first full season, Graham forced his way onto a variety of Top 100 Prospect lists, including ranking #93 on Baseball America's.  With the 'Cats, Graham started all 17 games he appeared in and by mid-July, Graham had a 2.63 ERA, a 3.38 FIP, and 1.02 WHIP.  A good deal of his success came from his pitching repertoire that produced a 59% ground-ball rate.  He made his AA debut on July 20th and started nine games down the stretch for the M-Braves and his numbers even improved with his FIP falling to 3.14.

Some expected the Braves to start Graham in Gwinnett to begin 2013 and he opened some eyes with his spring training invitation.  Still, the Braves went slow with Graham, sending him back to Mississippi to start the season. Something seemed off as his WHIP was 1.37 after May 13th when he left with some shoulder tightness that was later classified a shoulder strain.  Since then, the updates on Graham have been few and far between with some saying he might miss the rest of the season.  It's unfortunate because considering the Braves' issues in the bullpen, Graham could have followed his friend and former teammate Alex Wood to the majors.

As his numbers indicate, Graham relies on sinking movement that produces a good deal of groundballs.  He has a slight frame, which has brought comparisons to Roy Oswalt.  Graham's heat has been known to reach triple digits, but as a starter, he tends to reign it back to about 93-95 mph.  If hitters aren't hitting that into the dirt, Graham utilizes a slider that, when located properly, is a nasty out pitch.  To keep hitters a little off-balanced, Graham also has a change-up.  The latter is not nearly the pitch the other two are, but it's good enough to show the batter something else.

Most believe Graham's future is in the bullpen with the potential to be a devastating closer.  The Braves have kept him starting and his strikeout numbers have probably suffered for that.  As a reliever, Graham can let it go over an inning or two and give the Braves yet another power arm to bring in high-leverage situations.  Provided he can get healthy first.  Once that happens, don't be surprised to see Graham make his major league debut sooner rather than later.

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