The Atlanta Braves have been growing their own prospects for a long time. That's how they built their worst to first team in 1991, and that's how they sustained their long run of success since then. And lately the Braves system has been turning out more high quality prospects than it ever has. Some are used in trades to get established veterans, others are brought up to Atlanta and taught the Braves way.
The Braves use their prospects so well (trades and graduation to Atlanta) that only three players on the Braves entire 40-man roster were signed as Major League free agents by Atlanta (B.J. Upton, Ramiro Pena, and Gerald Laird). The other 37 players were either developed by the Braves system, identified and signed by their scouts, or acquired in a trade where mostly prospects were sent to the other team.
The next great prospect in the Braves system could be Alex Wood. We heard a lot about this during spring training, and we continue to read great things about him this season, as he is dominating double-A competition.
The real story is that Wood has finally found a formidable breaking pitch. Atlanta invited Wood to Major League Spring Training, and in camp, Wood adopted the same knuckle curve thrown by Braves relievers Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters.
As Wood says below, the pitch immediately became the best breaking ball he’s ever thrown, and he’s thrown it regularly this year while dominating the Southern League. [...]
[Wood says of his new pitch,] "I was lucky enough to go to big league camp with all those guys. I went in having a plan to ask those guys some things along those lines, and Craig [Kimbrel] and Jonny [Venters] showed me how to throw that spike curve, the knuckle curve. I tried it and I haven’t really looked back since.
Throwing a knuckle curve, it allows me to get on top of the breaking ball without thinking much about it. It’s one where, when you have consistent velocity, around 80-81 mph in my case, with that break, I can just throw the heck out of it. I guess you could say that I’m a power guy. I like to grip it and rip it, and I can do that with that breaking ball and get the speed difference and break. It fits right into my repertoire of pitches."
Great interview by MiLB.com's Prospective blog (link), make sure you read the whole thing.
Through four starts at double-A, Wood has a 0.82 ERA, holding batters to a .182 batting average while controlling his walks (4) and striking guys out (25) in 22 innings pitched. He is definitely emerging as the Braves top pitching prospect, leaping over fellow lefty Sean Gilmartin (2.86 ERA in AAA) and Mississippi rotation-mate J.R. Graham, (2.50 ERA in AA) even though those two prospects are also having good years.
In that trio of starting pitchers, the Braves have the depth to restock the rotation next year when Paul Maholm's contract is up (and possibly Tim Hudson's spot, if the Braves don't re-sign him).
With Wood pitching so well, the Braves may also choose to utilize him at some point in the bullpen. As Wood says, he likes to "grip it and rip it," and guys like that are usually perfect in relief. The great part about Wood (and Graham) is that the Braves have the luxury of waiting to see where they are needed and how they develop. And with all three guys developing within the next year, the Braves don't have to put any undue pressure on any one of them to hurry up and get ready for the Majors.
The mid-season top-prospect list is a couple months away, but it's certainly looking like Wood might be the new guy at the top of that list.
Here is an audio interview with Alex Wood, by the Birmingham Barons official blog (link).