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Development Week offers rookies taste of Majors

Top prospects Hursh, Sims, Graham among Minor Leaguers taking part in event

ATLANTA -- As Jason Hursh stood in front of Brian McCann's former locker in the Braves' clubhouse at Turner Field early Thursday afternoon, he was reminded that he was just a year removed from preparing for what would be the final season of a successful baseball career at Oklahoma State University.

"At this time last year, I was just trying to focus on our first game and getting outs in college," Hursh said. "If I would have blinked and you would have told me, 'Next year, you're going to be in the Braves' locker room giving interviews,' I would have said, 'No way.' It's crazy."

Hursh has enjoyed the lifestyle change he has experienced since being selected in the first round of last year's First-Year Player Draft. The hard-throwing right-hander has spent the past few days experiencing Rookie Development Week with a number of Atlanta's other top Minor Leaguers at Turner Field.

This marks the second time, and the first since 2011, that the Braves have staged this event, which is aimed at providing the players a chance to get comfortable with the environment they would inhabit if they reach the Major League level with Atlanta.

Along with talking to executives and coaches about some of the competitive preparations they need to make, the players have spent time this week learning about how to handle media members, social media and other things they could encounter at the big league level.

"It's good to see how it's done up here," said Lucas Sims, a 2012 first-round selection who stands as the club's top prospect. "It's a different world up here. It's really cool, and I'm having a blast."

Having been born and raised in suburban Atlanta, Sims has visited Turner Field countless times to watch his beloved Braves. But before Thursday morning, the 19-year-old right-hander had never had the opportunity to step foot on the field and play catch.

"It was cool to look around and just kind of imagine people out in the stands," Sims said. "I had thought about it. But once you're actually out there, even when it's empty, it's still something that catches your eyes. I'll probably fall asleep thinking about it tonight."

While this scene is new to Hursh and Sims, J.R. Graham got a taste of it as he impressed during his first big league Spring Training last year. Because they did not stage this event the past two years, the Braves opted to bring Graham to town this week, introducing him to an environment he could find himself in as early as this year.

Graham's ascent toward the big leagues was detoured last year, when he suffered a right shoulder strain while throwing a warmup pitch during his eighth start for Double-A Mississippi. While he was fortunate to not suffer any structural damage, the ailment was significant enough for the Braves to shut down the highly regarded prospect for the remainder of the season.

By the end of October, Graham was throwing off the bullpen mound again in a somewhat restricted fashion. He spent most of November training and extending his rehab at Cressey Performance in Boston. Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace -- formerly Minor League pitching coordinator with the Braves -- holds Graham in high esteem, allowing the young pitcher to stay at his Boston-area home during that span.

"That was my first snow experience," said Graham, who was raised in the Oakland area. "I actually shoveled snow at Wallace's house."

Fortunately, the shoveling did nothing but give Graham more reason to believe his shoulder is healthy enough to enter Spring Training without any restrictions. He threw off a mound last week without any problems and plans to do so again next week, when Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell welcomes pitchers to Turner Field for the club's voluntary early throwing program.

"I feel 100 percent," Graham said. "When I'm throwing, there is no pain. I know I've let a couple go just playing catch, and it has felt good. I think I will know more in the next couple of weeks leading up to Spring Training."

Braves assistant general manager Bruce Manno echoed this sentiment as he provided a positive update regarding the status of Graham, who opened eyes when his fastball produced triple-digit readings on some radar guns last spring.

"We think he's going to be ready," Manno said. "We were very cautious last year. But in the end, I think it should pay off, because I think he prepared properly and didn't try to do too much too soon. We think he'll be right back to where he was, and he does, too. That's real important."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for

Atlanta Braves, J.R. Graham