Alex Wood, a second-round pick in the 2012 Draft out of the University of Georgia, impressed everyone during Spring Training with the Atlanta Braves, allowing just one run over nine innings in five Grapefruit League appearances.
"I like this kid the more and more I see him pitch," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "His delivery is funky and there is some good stuff coming out of it."
"Alex Wood is legit," said veteran Braves pitcher Tim Hudson. "His stuff is nasty."
But the biggest benefit of Major League camp for the left-hander may not have been the boost in confidence comments like that generated. He also headed off for his first full Minor League season with the beginnings of an improved third pitch.
"I wrote in the journal that I always keep that this might be a breakthrough," Wood said after picking up a knuckle curve from Braves relievers Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters to replace his mediocre slider.
Wood, ranked as the Braves' No. 6 prospect by MLB.com, may end up in the Atlanta bullpen himself. But for now he is a starter and off to a good start with Mississippi in the Southern League.
The 22-year-old native of Charlotte had 13 strikeouts to two walks over nine innings in his first two outings while allowing six hits and two runs. He gave up just one hit and one walk over five scoreless innings in his Double-A debut against Mobile on April 6.
The 6-foot-4 Wood appears to be on the fast track, just like first-rounders Mike Minor (2009) and Sean Gilmartin (2011). College pitchers as well, they also jumped to the Southern League the April after being Drafted.
But Minor and Gilmartin had much more of college track record than Wood, who missed most of his first year at Georgia in 2010 recovering from Tommy John surgery and appeared in just 32 total games for the Bulldogs.
Minor and Gilmartin also had a set role ahead of them -- as starting pitchers. Wood's future could just as likely be in the bullpen as the starting rotation.
"He's a guy you look at over the next year or so and see what his best role might be," Braves general manager Frank Wren said.
Wood, who was 4-3 with a 2.22 ERA in 13 starts for Class A Rome last season after receiving a $700,000 bonus, got a little experience pitching out of the bullpen in Spring Training, picking up a pair of Grapefruit League saves.
"I'd be fine with either," Wood, who has a mid-90s fastball and a solid changeup, said of his eventual role. "I feel fortunate just to have this opportunity with the Braves. I'm chasing the dream."
And what about that funky delivery?
"It's definitely a little different than most," Wood said. "I think it helps me. I get to where I need to be on my pitches -- I just do it a different way."
"There are guys who have funk who can't repeat [the delivery]," Wren said. "He repeats his delivery and throws quality strikes."
Home sweet home: The Birmingham Barons won the first five games at their new downtown ballpark, sweeping a series against Mississippi. An overflow crowd of 8,505 came out for the first game at Regions Field on April 10, and they were rewarded with a 9-5 victory as outfielder Trayce Thompson had a double and triple. The opening series drew 30,461 -- an average of 6,092 per game. The Barons had played in the suburb of Hoover since 1987 after moving from historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham.
Learning a lesson: Chattanooga right-fielder Yasiel Puig, ranked as the Los Angeles Dodgers' No. 1 prospect by MLB.com, was pulled by manager Jody Reed in the middle of the fourth inning at Tennessee on April 10 in what was characterized as a teaching moment for an unspecified mental mistake. But that was about the only negative in the Cuban's first nine games with the Lookouts. Puig, 22, had two hits the next day and was batting .364 with five extra-base hits and six RBIs through Sunday.
Missing in inaction: Jacksonville's projected starting outfielders, all top prospects, began the season on the disabled list. Left-fielder Christian Yelich, 21, has a bone bruise on his left heel, center-fielder Jake Marisnick, 22, is recovering from a broken left hand and right-fielder Marcell Ozuna, 22, has a fractured left wrist. Yelich, No. 13 on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospect List, is ranked as the Marlins' No. 2 prospect, followed by Marisnick at No. 3 and Ozuna at No. 7.