When spring training began, Alex Wood was simply trying to put himself in position to make the Atlanta Braves rotation. With Opening Day on the horizon, the 23-year-old has survived a war of attrition to become a central figure on manager Fredi Gonzalez's staff.
In Atlanta, pitching has gone from a strength to a major concern.
Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy are gone for the 2014 season, victims of Tommy John surgery and the unpleasant reality of pitching injuries around the sport. Mike Minor is behind schedule due to offseason surgery.
On the surface, the Braves have two right-handed pitchers—Julio Teheran and Ervin Santana—on board to occupy top slots in the rotation. The former will toe the rubber on Opening Day, and the latter could be ready by April 9, per Mark Bowman of MLB.com.
When Mike Minor builds his arm strength up, Atlanta will have starters capable of making fans forget about Medlen and Beachy.
Yet, in order to reprise a role as a postseason contender, the Braves will need more than just three capable starting pitchers. While a five-man staff of high-ceiling arms would be ideal, Atlanta would likely settle for four, especially in the wake of an injury-plagued camp.
In Wood, a potentially excellent fourth starter could emerge. In fact, as of now, MLB Depth Charts has the second-year lefty penciled in as the No. 2 starter on Gonzalez's staff.
Based on what he's done this spring (5 GS, 0.45 ERA, 16/2 SO/BB), it's well deserved. By entering camp with the mindset of making the rotation, Wood has emerged into a key cog for Atlanta. If he can build upon a stellar 2013 rookie campaign, the Braves may unearth a star amiss the loss of stars.
During his latest spring training tune-up start, the second-year pitcher shut down the World Series champion Boston Red Sox, allowing just one run over six innings. Along the way, he impressed Gonzalez with his stuff and maturity, per David O'Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Wood knows what he’s doing out there on the mound," Gonzalez said. "He doesn’t give you many good pitches to hit. And they had a pretty good lineup out there. Especially from the right side. So it was a good test for him at this time of the spring. Woody was outstanding.”
Last season, outstanding wasn't a strong enough adjective to describe the stuff, performance and production from Wood. Across 31 appearances—including 11 starts—Wood threw 77.2 innings and posted an 8.9 SO/9 rate and 124 ERA+.
Considering his young age, the strikeout rate and adjusted ERA were particularly impressive.
Among all pitchers with at least 10 starts (eliminating true relief pitchers), Wood's SO/9 mark ranked 19th in baseball last year. Some names below Wood on that list, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required): Clayton Kershaw, Gio Gonzalez, Homer Bailey, Matt Moore and Cole Hamels.
To be fair, Wood's SO/9 mark was enhanced by bullpen work (9.6 SO/9 across 20 relief outings), but the numbers weren't drastically different during 11 starts (8.7 SO/9 across 56 innings).
With the ability to generate strikeouts at a high rate, Wood could be emerging into a top-tier starting option in front of Atlanta's eyes. Considering the rash of injuries that's overshadowed a team coming off a 96-win season, Wood's emergence is crucial.
Of course, there's still an unknown element to Wood's game and trajectory: the ability to handle a full season as a professional starter.
As a second-round pick in the 2012 draft, Wood simply hasn't had much time to mature and build up innings in the minors. Before last year's arrival in the big leagues, Wood made a grand total of 24 starts and pitched 114.2 innings in the minors.
Despite that, the words "innings limit" haven't been uttered in conjunction with Wood's 2014 season or progression. Yet, after shifting from starting in the minors to a dual role in the majors last year, expecting a 200-inning season out of Wood is too much to ask. Instead, the Braves can hope for their young lefty to give quality innings while he's fresh.
By sporting a 124 ERA+ last season, Wood proved that he could do just that. That mark is similar to three other recent young pitchers who bounced from the bullpen to the rotation during their respective age-22 campaigns.
|Young and Talented: Age-22 Seasons for SP/RP|
|Kelvim Escobar||1998||Blue Jays||22/10||79.2||124|
No, Cy Young Awards didn't commence for any of those young, comparable starters. But that doesn't mean the Braves would be upset if their pitcher turned out to have a career similar to Pineiro (104 victories) or Escobar (25.0 WAR).
When Wood makes his first start of 2014, the Braves will be counting on him more than anyone in the organization likely envisioned. Luckily, the talented pitcher is healthy and capable of pitching at a high level for a team trying to emerge from a crowded NL wild card race.
It's unfair to say that the 2014 Braves will go as far as Alex Wood takes them. For a team with talented everyday players like Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, the pressure to perform at a high level falls on different shoulders. In the rotation, Ervin Santana is viewed as the savior, not Wood.
Yet, a big season for Wood could make up for the losses of more-heralded arms. Atlanta's No. 2 starter may not be a household name, but he could become one quickly if the Braves find a way to crack the 90-win plateau this season.