LAWRENCEVILLE, U.S.A. – Julio Teherán doesn’t need a history lesson on Colombian baseball.
Teherán, a 20-year-old prospect for Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves, is well aware few players from the Andean nation have reached the majors, as just the Cincinnati Reds’ Edgar Rentería, a shortstop from Barranquilla, Colombia, and the San Francisco Giants’ Orlando Cabrera, a shortstop from Cartagena, have reached baseball’s biggest stage in recent years.
But that could change soon.
Teherán is rated by Baseball America as the No. 1 pitching prospect and No. 5 overall prospect in all of baseball and hopes to be a groundbreaker for Colombia in another way – by using his powerful right arm to throw fastballs by hitters.
Just a few Colombians have made it to the majors as pitchers, with the last being San Diego’s Ernesto Frieri, a native of Bolívar, who made his major league debut in 2009.
Video: Will Hammock/Infosurhoy.com
“Not many players from my country have made the major leagues,” said Teherán, a native of Cartagena. “I want to do that for my country and for my family.”
Teherán, scheduled to begin this season in Class AA, has risen through the minor leagues ahead of schedule and pitches for the Gwinnett (Ga.) Braves, the Class AAA team for the Atlanta Braves. Class AAA is one step away from the majors.
He had a combined 2.59 ERA at three levels of the Braves’ system last season. But he’s been even better for Gwinnett.
The wiry 6-foot-2, 175-pounder has dominated the International League this season. He leads the league in wins (12) and has 104 strikeouts in 116 2/3 innings. He’s lost two games.
Armed with a mid-to upper-90s fastball, Teherán also has two go-to off-speed pitches, including one of the best changeups in the minors. He’s been so good he was named as the starting pitcher in this year’s Futures All-Star Game, Major League Baseball’s annual showcase of top prospects.
A handful of baseball scouts noticed the same skills in Teherán at an early age when they scouted Colombia. The pitcher had no shortage of pursuers and some of the top teams in major league baseball tried to sign him as a free agent.
But he signed with the Braves for $850,000 in 2007.
“They were always the ones who showed the most interest,” Teherán said. “The scout for the Braves, he was always telling me their needs. He told me that was the right way to go.”
The big-league Braves have only gotten a brief glimpse of Teherán, who made his major league debut May 7. He made another spot start on May 18 and lasted less than five innings in both outings. Those results weren’t ideal, but they’re not bad for a 20-year-old playing the highest level of baseball.
If Teherán played for a team other than the pitching-rich Braves, he may have already been in a starting rotation. But Atlanta has one of the best rotations in baseball, led by Curaçao native Jair Jurrjens, who made the National League All-Star team this year.
The Braves’ wealth of quality starters has enabled them to allow Teherán to progress slowly, instead of rushing him to the majors full-time before he was ready. The team anticipates giving Teherán a shot at earning a spot in the rotation before the start of next season.
“I’ve improved a lot on the mental part of the game,” Teherán said. “That’s what they’ve told me to work on from the start and that’s what I will continue to work on to get to the major leagues.”
Teherán recently spoke with Infosurhoy.com at Coolray Field in Georgia, home of the Gwinnett Braves, during his team’s series against the Indianapolis Indians.
Infosurhoy: You’ve had a great season in the minors. You also got a taste of playing in the majors for two games earlier this season. Are you ready to play full-time with the Atlanta Braves next year?
Teherán: I am ready. [The Braves] taught me the things I had to work on while I was up there. I have been working on those things down here all season. I’m ready to go whenever they tell me to go up there.
Infosurhoy: What’s it like living in the United States?
Teherán: I do enjoy living here. But for the most part, I just love playing baseball. And it’s exciting to see the people come out here, supporting our team and cheering for us. That’s what motivates me every day.
Infosurhoy: What’s your favorite meal?
Teherán: Chicken. I love chicken.
Infosurhoy: How does your family in Colombia follow your baseball career?
Teherán: We keep in touch on the phone. They also watch the games online. Mom and Dad come and watch whenever they get the chance in the U.S.
Infosurhoy: Edgar Rentería, a native of Barranquilla, Colombia, was last year’s World Series MVP. He’s had a great career, but it’s coming to an end. How are you going to be the next role model for the children in Colombia who want to play baseball for a living?
Teherán: Edgar Rentería was a big inspiration because he was one of the few Colombian players to make it to the major leagues. I really admire that. I admire him and I hope I can do the same for young Colombian players. I do have other players I admire in the U.S., too.
Infosurhoy: Who else in the major leagues do you look up to?
Teherán: [Former All-Star and Cy Young-winning pitcher] Pedro Martínez and [former Braves’ All-Star pitcher] John Smoltz were my idols, too.
Infosurhoy: Do you believe you can be the same kind of ambassador for baseball in Colombia as Edgar Rentería and other players from your country?
Teherán: I’m trying to be like Edgar Rentería and Orlando Cabrera. I’m trying to inspire the kids behind me to play ball. I’m trying to get them to get better. I want the kids in my country to want to play more baseball.
Infosurhoy: How is baseball viewed in Colombia compared to soccer?
Teherán: Most of the kids who live along the coastal parts of Colombia play baseball. Other than that, there’s not a lot of baseball going on in the rest of the country.
Infosurhoy: How did you get into playing baseball?
Teherán: My dad and my uncle, they came from a baseball family. They inspired me to play baseball. I just picked up on that and kept going with it.
Infosurhoy: What was it like to move away from your home country as a teenager to another country?
Teherán: I started getting used to being away from my family when I started playing Little League. I traveled with them. That kind of got me used to being away from my family and got me ready for this.
Infosurhoy: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Teherán: Being a starting pitcher and a star in the major leagues.
Infosurhoy: From where do you draw your inspiration?
Teherán: Mostly from being able to help my family out. I’m making them happy, and I’m also making me happy. I’m trying to make my goal of making the major leagues.
Infosurhoy: What’s your biggest regret?
Teherán: I have no regrets at this point. I’m very happy.
Infosurhoy: You can have dinner with four people, dead or alive. Who would they be?
Teherán: Edgar Rentería, Orlando Cabrera, Pedro Martínez and John Smoltz.
Infosurhoy: What’s your most cherished possession and why?
Teherán: Little things that my family and friends give to me every time I see them. When I made it to the major leagues for the first time, my mom came out and each family member sent me a special note. I have those saved. They mean a lot to me.
Infosurhoy: What do you miss the most about Cartagena?
Teherán: The food.
Infosurhoy: What’s your favorite meal there?
Teherán: Chicken and rice.