Coming into Spring Training, optimism around the 2014 Atlanta Braves was high. Frank Wren had successfully re-signed most of the team’s young core, and a pitching staff that recorded the MLB’s lowest ERA last season was returning a young and talented starting rotation, along with Craig Kimbrel – the most dynamic and dominant closer in the game.
Oh, how quickly things change…
Over the past week, that optimism has dramatically shifted into an all-encompassing feeling of uncertainty, as two of the Braves’ top starting pitchers – Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy – both left their games early due to arm troubles. After seeing Dr. James Andrews on Monday, it was confirmed that Medlen would undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery for the second time in four years. Beachy may be staring at the same fate, putting him under the knife for the same surgery that he had just 21 months ago.
The news could be potentially devastating for a Braves team that was depending on the two young standouts being atop their rotation. In order to supplement their loss, Frank Wren was able to sign starting pitcher Ervin Santana to a one-year, $14.1 million contract. The reliable 10-year veteran sports a career 4.19 ERA, has a no-hitter under his belt, and just came off his statistically best season in the bigs. Many hope that he can be the pitcher that will save the Braves’ now injury plagued rotation; however, a relatively unknown youngster could have just as big of an impact.
Alex Wood – a 2012 second-round draft choice out of the University of Georgia – came on to the scene last season and spent most of the year splitting time between the bullpen and the starting rotation. The former Dawg was pretty impressive during his rookie campaign, accumulating 77 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings, posting a 3.13 ERA, and having the third lowest ERA of any MLB rookie in the month of August since 1955.
Wood was expected to start this season in the bullpen, but as the injury issues have progressed, so has the realization that Wood could become an integral part of the Braves’ starting rotation. So far in Spring Training, Wood has thrown more innings (14) than any other pitcher, adding 12 strikeouts to only 2 walks, a .93 WHIP, and limiting opposing hitters to a .220 average. He also has yet to allow an earned run in four starts. Not bad for a second year pitcher who was in AA Mississippi around this time last year.
The important thing to remember is that this is ONLY Spring Training and his stats are ONLY a small sample size. Nonetheless, his Grapefruit League success is intriguing. Wood is not known as a power pitcher and his strikeout rate will most likely go down, but he continues to show the ability to get hitters out and win games. If he can continue to build on his impressive rookie season and Spring Training, hone his pitching skills, and learn to adjust as the league adjusts to him, Wood could develop into a type of Medlen or Beachy, version 2.0. Assuming he can accomplish these goals, Alex Wood may just be the Braves’ unsung hero of 2014.