BRADENTON, Fla. -- When Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez saw Julio Teheran two weeks ago, he challenged the heralded pitching prospect by asking him why he felt he was worthy of interacting with some of the team's veterans at the start of Spring Training.
"He said, 'I'm the man this year,'" Perez reported. "I said, 'You're the man because of your name right now, but you didn't do [anything] when you were with us the past two years.' He said, 'You watch this year.'"
The Braves will watch Teheran closely over the next month in an attempt to determine whether he is the young pitcher who was one of the game's top overall prospects a year ago, or the young pitcher who experienced a disastrous season with Triple-A Gwinnett last summer.
Teheran looked much more like the former as he confidently cruised through two scoreless innings while making his Grapefruit League season debut against the Pirates at McKechnie Field on Sunday afternoon.
The 22-year-old right-hander, who is the favorite to begin the season as Atlanta's fifth starter, commanded the inside portion of the plate with his fastball and confidently threw his slider to both sides of the plate. His fastball rested between 88-92 mph, and he threw first-pitch strikes to six of the seven batters he faced.
"This is the first time I've seen him in Spring Training where he looks and feels like he belongs," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "When he was a younger kid, you could pick him out immediately. You can't do that anymore. He's grown up."
Natural maturity has widened Teheran's shoulders and allowed him to lose the youthful frame he possessed when he arrived for his first big league camp last year. In addition, he no longer seems to be the wide-eyed, overconfident young prospect that he was when he surrendered six homers in his Grapefruit League debut against the Tigers last spring.
"I feel like this is going to be my year, and I have the confidence to be the best," Teheran said.
Teheran's words seem much more genuine than they would have been as he was going 7-9 with a 5.08 ERA in 26 starts for Gwinnett last year. One summer earlier, at the tender age of 20, he had cemented his place as one of the game's top five overall prospects by going 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA in 25 appearances (24 starts) with Gwinnett.
The drastic decline likely had something to do with the lack of motivation that accompanied pitching a second straight season with Gwinnett. But his struggles were also blamed on the mechanical changes the Braves asked him to make, after seeing him tip his pitches in the five Major League appearances (three starts) he made in 2011.
With the help of Minor League pitching instructor Dave Wallace and special assistant Dom Chiti, Teheran made some adjustments that allowed him some success in August. But his struggles resumed during the first few starts he made for Licey in the Dominican Winter League.
"He didn't start like the guy I was used to seeing with his electric fastball, his curveball and his changeup," said Braves catching prospect Christian Bethancourt, who also played in Licey. "He started a little bit slow. We talked a few times. We lived together, and our lockers were beside each other. I just told him, 'You need to do something.' He started working and then he finally got it."
Teheran's turnaround was aided by a conversation he had while having dinner with Pedro Martinez, who won three Cy Young Awards during his storied career. Wallace, who was Martinez's pitching coach in Boston, helped arrange the meeting.
"He was saying that you have to stay in the game and pitch with your mind and not just your physical [talents]," Teheran said. "That's what I tried to do in the games after that."
A few years ago, Wren compared Teheran to Martinez because both had live arms and what he described as a vibrant "I know I am going to get you out" attitude.
Humbled by his struggles and energized by Martinez's message, Teheran turned quickly turned things around and ended up allowing just two hits while completing 16 2/3 scoreless innings over his final three starts with Licey.
"Those last few starts, he was just Julio Teheran," Bethancourt said. "Everything was perfect. All of the other teams were like, 'Who is this guy?'"
In the next month of Spring Training, the Braves are hoping to learn Teheran is still the same guy who was destined for greatness before being humbled last year.
"This is a very mental game," Wren said. "It's a game where your mental game and your confidence are as important as your physical ability. When those two things get beaten down, it doesn't matter how hard you throw or what Baseball America says about you. You're going to be a beaten man. There was a period of time last year where he was."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less