J.R. Graham pitches for the Mississippi Braves last season. (Photo: Mississippi Braves)
J.R. Graham turned heads last spring, lighting up Grapefruit League scoreboards with fastballs nearing 100 mph.
The right-hander’s 2013 season ended in May, though, and the former top Atlanta Braves pitching prospect was among the team’s first-round cuts this year.
Now the 24-year-old California native is trying to build back full strength in his shoulder and recapture a little of his lost velocity as well as luster.
Graham remains a prime prospect, just not the can’t-miss pitcher he once was rated. He is ranked No. 3 among Braves hopefuls by Baseball America and is No. 6 on the MLB.com list.
The fourth-round draft pick in 2011 out of St. Mary’s University showed the expected rust in his first three Grapefruit League outings this year, but didn’t allow a hit or run in his final two before being sent to minor league camp.
“It’s really encouraging that my arm is healthy and it was getting better each time out,” Graham said. “It’s just a matter of maintaining the strength in my shoulder and making sure I’m not doing too much in the weight room and on the field, throwing-wise. Now, it’s a matter of just trying to keep everything intact.”
Graham will start the season at Gwinnett as an option for either the rotation or bullpen while he works his way back.
Graham might already be an established member of the Atlanta staff if he hadn’t strained his shoulder last May.
“Friday the 13th,” Graham said, superstitious now if he wasn’t before.
Graham was hurt throwing a warm-up pitch before the third inning at Class AA Mississippi.
“I felt it go,” Graham said of his shoulder. “I thought that it was just a pinched nerve. But I had nothing on the ball when I threw another pitch.”
Suddenly, his career was put on pause.
Although no major structural damage was found, Graham didn’t pitch the rest of the year. He wasn’t ready for game action in the fall instructional league in Florida, either.
Graham was ready to go at the start of spring training, but the effects of missing most of last season showed.
In five relief appearances covering four innings, he allowed six hits and three runs (two earned) while striking out one and walking one.
That was in contrast to last spring, when Graham didn’t allow a run over nine innings in five games. He gave up six hits, walked three and struck out five.
Still, Graham appears to have a bright future if he can stay healthy.
Graham was the Braves minor league pitcher of the year in 2012, when he went a combined 12-2 with a 2.80 ERA for Class A Advanced Lynchburg and Mississippi.
That followed his first season when he was 5-2 with a 1.72 ERA at rookie-level Danville after being drafted.
In 241 1/3 minor league innings, Graham has a 2.72 ERA and 190 strikeouts to 57 walks.
“It’s been frustrating, but hopefully it was just a speed bump on the way to the major leagues,” he said.