Rehabbing prospect Graham setting sights on 2014
Right-hander appeared on track to Majors before suffering shoulder injury in May
ATLANTA -- J.R. Graham's first big league Spring Training lived up to his loftiest expectations. Along with allowing the right-hander to spend a little more than a month interacting with childhood idol Tim Hudson, the experience afforded Graham the opportunity to give the Braves reason to believe he was quite close to being ready to pitch at the Major League level.
Nearly seven months later, Graham literally and figuratively finds himself in the same spot. The Braves' Spring Training complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., has served as Graham's home since he suffered a right shoulder strain while pitching for Double-A Mississippi in the middle of May.
However, much of the frustration he encountered during the summer months has faded, as he has spent the past few weeks throwing off the mound in pain-free fashion. While he has not regained all of the arm strength that enabled him to light up radar guns with triple-digit readings during Grapefruit League games, the 23-year-old has finally gained the confidence that his shoulder is healthy again.
"I thought this year was going to be my year," Graham said. "I was doing good things. I showed what I could do in camp. I think the Braves have plans for me. But you've just kind of got to take it in stride. I don't think anything has really changed for me. I just need to get healthy. I just had a little freak accident. If I come back healthy, there should be no reason I shouldn't be up in Atlanta."
If Graham remains healthy, there is certainly reason to believe he could be a part of Atlanta's pitching staff as early as next year. MLB.com ranks the high-energy, hard-throwing hurler as the Braves' second-best overall prospect, ranking only behind fellow right-handed hurler Lucas Sims.
"I feel like I'm ready," Graham said. "It's just a matter of when I'm going to be called."
During the early days of Spring Training, it quickly became apparent that Graham and Alex Wood were the most impressive new kids on the block. Both began the season as part of Mississippi's starting rotation. But while Wood spent the season's final four months proving himself at the big league level, Graham was dealing with this shoulder ailment that struck him in unexpected fashion.
While posting a 4.24 ERA in his first seven starts with Mississippi, Graham was tinkering with some adjustments that he hoped would help expedite his journey to Atlanta. He toyed with pitching on the third-base side of the rubber during three outings, worked on his changeup and toyed with a few different breaking-ball grips.
Everything felt normal as Graham limited Huntsville to one hit through the first two innings of his May 13 start. But everything changed as he threw his second-to-last warmup pitch -- a changeup -- before the start of the third inning.
"There was kind of a numb tingling going down from the back of my shoulder and through my arm," Graham said. "I was like, 'Oh, that didn't feel too good.' I was thinking maybe I just ran over a nerve or something. But then I threw a fastball and I barely got it to the plate. I knew something was wrong then."
An MRI exam performed the next day in Mississippi led Graham to travel to Atlanta for a visit with Dr. Xavier Duralde, who prescribed at least a month of rest and provided the encouraging revelation that he did not believe surgery on the injured right shoulder would be necessary.
Fortunately, Graham didn't need to undergo surgery. But when he began throwing again approximately six weeks after visiting Duralde, the young pitcher was still having a tough time consistently throwing the ball to the plate.
This led Graham to receive a stem cell platelet-rich plasma injection during the latter part of July. After resting for another three weeks, Graham began a throwing program and patiently waited as he made the progress that eventually led to him to being cleared to begin throwing off the mound again two weeks ago.
"Everybody's shoulder reacts different," Graham said. "I didn't think I would be down here, basically, an entire season. But I got down here, started throwing and it didn't really feel right. You just have to take your time with these shoulders, because you don't know how they are going to react. It took a little more time than I expected."
While he is only throwing with what he approximates to be 80-percent effort, Graham has been encouraged by the results. Earlier this week, he was cleared to begin throwing breaking balls off the mound.
"I don't feel like I'm throwing 100 percent yet, nor am I trying to," Graham said. "But every time I go out there and throw, I'm feeling a little bit better and I feel I can get a little more on it."
Graham will likely remain in Florida until Nov. 11 and then begin making some of the normal offseason preparations before returning to Spring Training with the hope of beginning next season as a part of Atlanta's pitching staff.
"I'm out there to have fun," Graham said. "Baseball is a fun game. I'm going to have a blast out there. Whatever they need me to do, I'm going to do. If they want me to relieve, I'll relieve. If they want me to start, I'll start. The ultimate goal is to break with the team."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.