This is the first in a 4-piece discussion about the role of Alex Wood on the Braves for 2013 between Tomahawk Take senior staff writer Fred Owens and staff writer Benjamin Chase.
Alex Wood has been a piece of heavy debate within the circles of Atlanta Braves fans this whole year. Go back to last June, and many were debating the wisdom of even drafting Wood, who was not much removed from having Tommy John and some debated whether he was a local pick more than a pick based on talent. All he did was debut in the Sally League with a 2.22 ERA and 8.9 k/9 last year and follow that up with a 1.26 ERA with nearly identical rate stats from his 2012 season when moved to AA Mississippi this year. The Braves followed the high marks he was receiving in national prospect publications and brought him up to their big league club, and he continued to produce, throwing 22 innings in 16 games, one start with a 2.45 ERA with a 10.5 K/9.
So what do the Braves do with Wood this season?
I am a fan of the idea of keeping Wood on the Braves for the season, allowing him to fill a swing role, pitching long relief and starting when the team needs a spot start. Many of the talking heads will tell you that is not the way to go to help his development, but I have a number of examples that back my idea that this role is a solid way to expose a talented player to the major leagues. To put it frankly, you cannot learn how to get major league hitters out unless you’re getting major league hitters out.
A few examples I have of the role leading to a solid major league career:
Johan Santana – Santana was a Rule V draft pick when he was part of the Twins initially, but he was considered high-risk because of the torque his delivery put on his shoulder. Even after his Rule V season, Santana pitched two dominant season as a swing man for the Twins, even garnering Cy Young votes as a swing man before moving to a full-time role.
Francisco Liriano – Liriano was a throw-in in the much-publicized robbery that was the Twins deal with the Giants that sent A.J. Pierzynski to San Francisco. He was very hyped for his arm, but he also had a high injury risk. The Twins intended to give him the same treatment that they had used with Santana and, with less effectiveness, Joe Mays, but their staff needs in 2006 with the terrible performances of Carlos Silva, Boof Bonser, Scott Baker, and Kyle Lohse, Liriano was rushed into a consistent starting role before the end of 2006, which likely contributed to his surgery after the 2006 season. Even with struggles he has had, he produced 9.5 bWAR in 180 games (153 starts) for the Twins.
David Wells – Wells was injured his last season before Toronto started his career as a swing man. He was finally given a chance to start after a trade to Detroit. He took that chance and ran with it to the tune of 239 major league wins.
Pedro Martinez – The Dodgers used Pedro as a long reliever in much the way Wood has been used this season before trading him to Montreal for Delino DeShields. He had 219 wins in his career and is considered arguably the most dominant right-hander in the last 20 years.
Tom Gordon – “Flash” was small in stature and generated a ton of concern based on these issues. He spent 5 seasons bouncing between starter and swingman before moving to the rotation full-time and struggling to maintain his “stuff” a second and third time through the lineup. The Red Sox moved him permanently to the bullpen, and he became a very dominant setup man and sometimes closer, with a 9.6 K/9 and 144 saves.
Mike Remlinger – Remmy was a dominant piece of the 2002 Atlanta bullpen, often considered the best ever in Braves history. The Reds were disappointed with Remlinger in a swingman and starter role after he had struggled for many seasons with injury and control issues. The Braves put him permanently in the bullpen, and he was arguably the best left-handed setup man in the game for a span of 4 seasons before turning his 2002 success into a big contract with the Cubs.
Octavio Dotel – The Astros wanted desperately to make Dotel work as a starter, but they found quickly that his stuff was nearly untouchable in short stints. He’s made a very long career as a reliever, now more of a ROOGY, but still pitching effectively last season at age 38.
Eric Gagne – Whether his meteoric rise was based on steroid use or not, he could not make the grade as a swingman for the Dodgers, but the moment they put him into the bullpen, he was dominant, putting up numbers only our own Craig Kimbrel has ever approached as a closer.
Ugueth Urbina – Urbina left the game after a very good season when he certainly had solid prospects for a 2006 contract in free agency before finding himself in the midst of an attempted murder trial in his homeland Venezuela. He attempted a comeback this season, but no team picked him up. That said, for 9 seasons, he was one of the best relievers in the game after starting his career as a swingman for the Montreal Expos.
Nearly all of these players had a factor of injury because of previous surgery or questionable mechanics, both things that have been brought up regarding Wood. While his future role is yet to be determined, it’s clear that being in the majors in a swing role right now certainly won’t be the thing that “hurts” his future prospects. He will make it or not based on his ability to get major league hitters out, whether that’s as a starter or reliever.