When Atlanta sought Arizona's Justin Upton this winter, Braves general manager Frank Wren knew he had Minor League pitching depth to spare. The D-backs inquired about right-hander Zeke Spruill, and that depth made him expendable in Wren's eyes.
On Monday, Spruill made his fourth start in Arizona's farm system, his second against his former Mississippi squad. The sinkerballer blanked the M-Braves over eight innings, but it wasn't enough to get his first win of the year.
Instead Atlanta's No. 6 prospect, Alex Wood, countered with six scoreless frames, and Mississippi beat Mobile, 1-0, on Edward Salcedo's two-out, ninth inning double.
But 23-year-old Spruill was dominant Monday. He allowed three hits and walked three while striking out two, and he needed just 96 pitches to complete the effort.
"He's been very aggressive with his fastball and his command to both sides of the plate has been very good," Mobile pitching coach Dan Carlson said. "He dominates with his fastball and his splitter, which is his punchout pitch."
This season is Spruill's third in the Southern League. He made seven starts for Mississippi in 2011 and a league-leading 27 starts with 161 2/3 innings with the Braves in 2012, posting ERAs of 3.20 and 3.67 respectively.
Through four starts this year for Mobile, Arizona's No. 10 prospect has a 1.35 ERA with a 16-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's averaging 6 2/3 innings per start, including 7 2/3 frames on 98 pitches in his previous start April 17.
Spruill's working with a four-pitch mix -- a sinking fastball that sits between 90-95 mph, a splitter, a slider and a circle change.
The fastball and splitter have long been effective pieces of his repertoire. The slider is a work in progress- - Carlson said he's encouraged that Spruill is throwing it for strikes, but added that the break and velocity on the pitch are still under development.
"The shape will get better as he gets more of a feel for it," the pitching coach said. "There's a big difference between a get-me-over slider and a swing-and-miss pitch. He might even turn it into more of a slurve and pitch it more in the 70s than throwing it 83-85."
The circle change is something Spruill's trying to mix in earlier in counts this season.
"He's picking it up a little more this year," Carlson said. "It's something he can throw early in the count to get hitters off the fastball but not show them the slider or the split. It's something that's in his repertoire, but not something he's overly using right now."
Although Spruill estimated he's played with about half the Mississippi roster, he said he'd only played with two or three guys in the lineup Monday, and most of those were only for brief periods. Most of his scouting reports were formed watching the first two games of the five-game set over the weekend.
"That Braves team has been very impatient the last couple of nights," he said. "I wanted to attack them with the sinker and try to get quick outs, get ground balls. That was the game plan and it worked out for me."
Spruill had the M-Braves pounding his sinker into the dirt all night. Mississippi hit 12 groundouts to just five flyouts in the game.
Wood, meanwhile, is a University of Georgia product who has been electric in the Braves' farm system since being selected in the second round of last year's First-Year Player Draft. In 13 starts with Class A Rome in 2012, he posted a 2.22 ERA with 52 strikeouts and 14 walks in 52 2/3 innings.
His start Monday was his fourth this season and already his third scoreless outing. He boasts an 0.82 ERA in 22 innings with 25 strikeouts and four walks.
The left-hander was invited to Atlanta's Major League camp this spring, and in five relief appearances, he posted a 1.29 ERA.
"Alex has made a good impression," Wren told MLB.com in March. "He's got a little funk in his delivery, which I think helps him. The good thing is there are guys who have funk who can't repeat. He repeats his delivery and throws quality strikes, along with having good quality stuff.
"He's got good life and a good breaking ball. Depending on the role as he moves forward, he's another guy you watch over the next year or so to determine what is the ideal role. You know at the very least he can be a quality left-handed reliever that throws real hard."
Wood's fastball and changeup were quality pitches before he even reached pro ball. His future will hinge on the development of a third offering -- in Wood's case, a curveball. Wood picked up a spike curveball from Atlanta pitchers Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters this spring, and that pitch became his most effective breaking ball in short order.
The win was the seventh straight for the M-Braves, and each of the last six has been decided in the ninth inning or later. Salcedo, ranked 17th in the Braves' organization, drove in Jose Martinez for the winning run in the top of the ninth Monday. The double was his first of the season and just his second extra-base hit, and it pushed his average up to .254 with a .655 OPS.
Nick Ahmed, another piece in the Arizona-Atlanta trade, went 2-for-4 for Mobile. The D-backs' No. 7 prospect also struck out twice in raising his batting average to .164.