Alex Wood is the first player from the 2011, 2012, or 2013 Braves draft classes to reach the major leagues. (He was the team’s second-round pick in 2012, #85 overall.) There are two major reasons for this:

1) He was a college pitcher, such as the Braves are wont to draft, and thus has a head start on younger minor leaguers, and
2) He strikes out a batter an inning, pretty much whatever level you put him at.

This is a pretty call-up-friendly combination, and it appears that at the age of 23, Wood is
in Atlanta to stay. You can read a certain amount of confidence in him in the organization’s decision to let Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm walk in free agency. They figure they’ve got the top three in the rotation set (Medlen, Teheran, Minor) and can get 400 good starter-innings out of some combination of Wood, Gavin Floyd, Brandon Beachy, J.R. Graham, Freddy Garcia, and David Hale. I don’t disagree, much as it pains me to watch Huddy leave. Wood has a mid-90s fastball, a mid-80s changeup, and a delivery that suggests his arm will fall off with any random pitch.

Wood’s stuff and mechanics may be more suited for a relief role long-term, but in the here and now, the Braves need him as a starter, especially with Floyd not available until mid-summer. Will he be the starter they need, or is he best as a reliever? There’s evidence either way. And regardless, he might get a chance to shine at both roles this year.

From July 30 to August 27 last year, Wood had a brilliant six-start stretch in which he pitched five straight quality starts and one that would have been a QS had they left him in to get one more out. But in September, Wood started giving up runs in chunks, couldn’t get out of the fifth inning in any of three starts, and was put in the bullpen by mid-month.

That may be a sign of a young pitcher fatiguing at the end of his first full professional season, though note that Wood actually threw more total innings between college and the minors in 2012 (155) than he threw between the minors and the majors in 2013 (140). And after the move back to the bullpen, he didn’t give up another run the rest of the season, 3.1 playoff innings included. It’s not crazy to think that once Craig Kimbrel inevitably moves on from Atlanta, Alex Wood might be the Braves’ next closer.

Because Wood probably won’t throw more than 170 or so innings this year, and because the Braves need him to start now while they wait for Floyd and any midseason acquisitions to come along, I expect him to pull a reverse-2012-Medlen: start the first half of the season and pitch in relief the second half. If he pitches to the same level in 2014 as he did in 2013 and throws 170 innings, he’d project as a 2.5 WAR pitcher. That’s a valuable piece of a contending club, whether as a starter or a reliever.