With the fifth pick in the 2014 Rule 5 Draft (that doesn't sound half as good as when it happened in June), the Twins selected right-hander J.R. Graham from the Atlanta Braves. Sean Gilmartin, on his way out, was acquired from the Braves for Ryan Doumit.
Losing Gilmartin, 24, was expected. The lefty was a first-round pick in 2011 and was slowed by injury in 2013, but for Minnesota this season he compiled a 3.71 ERA in 145.2 innings between Double and Triple-A. He's good depth for any system, but now that the Mets will be forced to keep him on the 25-man roster they'll be stashing him as a LOOGY specialist out of their bullpen. It would surprise me if he wasn't perfectly adequate in that role, which again begs the question of why the Twins will pay a multiple of what would be Gilmartin's Major League salary (the league minimum) in order to retain Brian Duensing.
In Graham, the Twins have another reclamation project. A fourth-round pick by the Braves in 2011, he was considered a talented arm with some pretty good upside. His fastball was in the upper-90s and he had a plus slider, but his mechanics were considered high-effort, with scouts stating that an arm injury was inevitable. The reports reminded me of Francisco Liriano.
After eight starts to start the 2013 season, Atlanta's Double-A affiliate put Graham on the disabled list with a strained shoulder. He was supposed to miss a few weeks but ended up missing the rest of the season. Even after all that, Talkin Chop (SB Nation's Atlanta Braves community) ranked him as their number two prospect headed into 2014. Here's what they said:
Man, injuries are the worst, huh? Graham was sidelined with a shoulder strainin May after making eight appearances for Mississippi and was held out of competition for theremainder of the 2013 season. Prior to the injury, many believed that Graham had an outside chance of making an impact down the stretch either in the bullpen or in the starting rotation. Instead, Graham spent the summer months rehabbing in Lake Buena Vista, preparing himself for the 2014 season. While all reports have him healthy heading into the season, one has to wonder if the effects of the injury will linger; we shall see how he looks in the spring and evaluate from there.
The injury notwithstanding, Graham is an arm worthy of plenty of excitement. The fastball is a plus-plus offering, sitting in the mid-90s and touching the upper-90s, with tons of arm-side and vertical movement. The slider is a plus offering with more depth than lateral break, sitting in the mid- to upper-80s. The changeup is a clear third pitch but is still average, showing great depth and some arm-side fade in the mid- to upper-80s. The delivery is athletic and the arm is very quick, and while some claim that Graham has a future in the bullpen due to his diminutive stature, he grades out as a future number two/three starter for me.
Graham should see time in Atlanta at some point this year, with the health of the shoulder being the omnipresent caveat and his ultimate role to be determined. One thing’s for certain: Graham could end up forcing many evaluators to question how he lasted so long in the 2011 draft.
Scouting reports around the league read in a similar fashion. But he lost most time to injury in 2014, and when he returned was a mixed bag of tricks. He had lost five miles per hour or so off of his fastball, the slider had more movement but had lost its bite, and the two-seam fastball remained his best pitch but sat just above 90mph.
Graham is no longer a power pitcher and has had to learn to control his body. The result is that the Braves considered him expendable. Minnesota gets an opportunity to check him out in person, to see how the arm is recovering, and to see if his once golden arm can find some form out of the bullpen.
There's still upside to Graham. Certainly more than there was for Gilmartin or even Scott Diamond, if we want to keep bringing up ex-Atlanta pitchers. But the command is going to have to come more easily, and he's going to have to prove that he can repeat his delivery and get Major League hitters out - even if it's in short stints instead of as a starter.