Braves pitching prospects waiting in wings

sports@macon.comApril 30, 2013 

Back in the 1990s, the Atlanta Braves were always waiting for a pitching prospect. A few years earlier, they were waiting for a pitcher, any pitcher, to save the franchise. Tom Glavine took care of that. But then things changed, and the next pitching prospect was simply going to add to the depth at the major league level.

Sometimes those pitchers didn’t work out. Take Terrell Wade. Macon Braves fans will remember the kid named Hawatha. He was dominant in a half-season in Macon back in 1994, posting a 1.73 ERA in 14 starts. Wade made the big leagues a year later, and while he had a good season out of the pen for Atlanta in 1996, he never lived up to his potential and won only eight big league games.

The Braves wanted Wade to join a rotation that had Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. That might have been too much to ask for anyone, considering we knew even 20 years ago those three had a great chance to make the Hall of Fame.

Kevin Millwood did work out. He was actually awful in Macon in that same 1994 season. Millwood had a 5.79 ERA in 12 games and a 4.63 ERA the next season at Luther Williams Field. When Millwood got the call in 1997, he started a career that ended with 169 major league victories, including five and a half seasons as the “other guy” in that heralded Atlanta rotation.

The Braves are in somewhat the same situation now, of having prospects who could join a pretty full rotation. Atlanta’s group of five starters is pretty solid, and Brandon Beachy’s pending return from elbow surgery will make it even more packed later this season.

But there are two pitchers in particular at Double-A who are knocking on the door -- loudly -- and they could be a factor later on this summer in the pennant race.

One is former Georgia Bulldogs pitcher Alex Wood, a left-hander drafted by the Braves in the second round last June. He has been unbelievable through the first month, with a 0.67 ERA in five starts, with 19 hits allowed in 27 innings, five walks and 31 strikeouts.

Scouts have said that Wood needs a breaking ball to complement his solid fastball and outstanding changeup. He played around with a knuckle-curve in spring training, after working with some of the major leaguers in big league camp. It’s worked, and the good bender might be the difference in Wood being a major league starter compared to a two-pitch reliever.

With Jonny Venters still out, Wood might be an option if the Braves need another lefty arm in the bullpen. Wood’s herky-jerky motion could be tough for opposing hitters late in games, especially if he has all three pitches working for him.

Then there’s J.R. Graham, a fourth round pick two years ago out of Santa Clara. He has a 3.09 ERA in his first five starts in Mississippi. Last year, Graham was 12-2 in 26 starts between High-A and Double-A. The Braves sent him back to Mississippi this year to have a bit more success and to work on his changeup.

Graham is a lot like Craig Kimbrel. He’s short in stature but throws pure gas, with a fastball in the upper 90s that even reached 102 mph in spring training. Some believe he can be successful as a starter or reliever in the majors.

And don’t forget about left-hander Sean Gilmartin. He was Atlanta’s first-round pick two years ago out of Florida State. Gilmartin has a 2.40 ERA in five starts for Triple-A Gwinnett, and the Braves would not hesitate to call him to Atlanta if they needed another starting pitcher. Gilmartin is close -- really close -- to being ready for the major leagues.

Can one of these three knock one of the current starters out of the Atlanta rotation? Well, that’s tough to say, especially considering Beachy also will clutter the situation in another two months. But remember, both Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm are free agents this winter. Chances are more likely Hudson would return for another year or two, but either way Wood, Graham and Gilmartin might be examined closely as potential starters for next season.

They might have more important work to do before that, however, as reinforcements for a pitching staff that is already pretty good, and if one of these kids come up could actually get even better.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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