3/7/2014 7:07 P.M. ET
Wood feels like he belongs, but still in awe of stars
By Spencer Fordin / MLB.com
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Most young pitchers pretend not to notice when All-Stars step into the batter's box. And then there's Alex Wood. Wood, a 23-year-old southpaw for the Braves, was still in college less than two years ago, so he's not afraid to express awe at facing a batter like David Ortiz.
Wood, who shot through Atlanta's Minor League system at a stunning pace, tossed three scoreless innings against the Red Sox on Friday, and he struck out Ortiz in the second inning. Wood got Ortiz looking on a breaking ball, and he spoke later in the day about what that meant to him.
"You could definitely feel Big Papi's presence when he got in the box. He has that swagger about him," said Wood, admitting an elemental fact that many pitchers would rather deny. "He just gets in the box and it's like, 'Well, darn. That's Big Papi.' He's such a great hitter and he's done so many great things. It was pretty neat to throw to him and [Dustin] Pedroia and some of those other guys today."
Wood, who has pitched just 24 games in the Minor Leagues, is one of Atlanta's fastest-rising prospects. The left-hander was drafted out of the University of Georgia in the second round in 2012, and after making 13 starts for Class A Rome, he positioned himself for a breakout season.
Wood went 4-2 with a 1.26 ERA for Double-A Mississippi last year, and the Braves called him up to the big leagues for the first time at the end of May. Wood, despite not having a long Minor League career, thrived with the Braves, logging a 3.13 ERA and a 3-3 record in 31 appearances in the Majors.
Now, one spring later, he feels like he belongs. Wood can't help but smile as he thinks about how far he's come in such a short period of time, and he admits he feels much more comfortable now.
"It's funny you ask. I was just thinking about that to myself earlier," said Wood during Atlanta's 4-1 loss to Boston. "It's funny because today, I was still a little nervous going in there. I think it's good nerves. It keeps you on your toes. And it's not just this atmosphere down here, throwing against the defending world champions. It's the competition, like we talked about last week, within the organization."
Atlanta, as usual, is flush with young pitching talent. Julio Teheran, Mike Minor and Kris Medlen -- all developed within the organization -- made 93 of Atlanta's 162 starts last season. Another homegrown arm, Brandon Beachy, returned to the fold last July after reconstructive surgery on his elbow.
Wood fits right in with those high-caliber arms, and he said he worked on his breaking ball this winter pretty much the very first time he picked up a baseball. Manager Fredi Gonzalez was thrilled with what he saw from Wood on Friday, and he's hoping to see more of the same for a long time to come.
"We think really high of him. He doesn't get spooked," said Gonzalez. "Last year, he came in from just pitching college baseball. And we brought him in to the Major Leagues and he was successful. He gets excited and he competes. He's a bulldog on the mound. ... He's a guy that likes to compete. He pounds the strike zone. He really does. He just keeps giving you good outing after good outing."
Johnson makes trip to play in hometown
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Usually, Chris Johnson lets the manager post the lineup card. This time, he listened to his mother. Johnson, coming off a tremendous season for the Braves, asked to come on a long road trip to his hometown, Fort Myers, on Friday so he could play in front of friends and family.
Johnson -- who grew up right off Daniels Parkway and attended local Bishop Verot High School -- said he couldn't really resist the temptation to play at home. Johnson asked to take the road trip despite the fact that he had played in three consecutive games, and he spent the morning feeling nostalgic.
"Today's my scheduled day off, but I can't pass up coming home," he said. "Of all the things my mom has done for me, if she asks me to be on a trip, then I've got to do my best to be on the trip."
Johnson, Atlanta's third baseman, logged a career-best .321 batting average last season, good enough to finish second in the race for the National League's batting title. The 29-year-old said that he'd have about 20 family members at Friday's game, including his mother and five siblings.
Johnson's dad, Ron Johnson, is currently the manager for Triple-A Norfolk in Baltimore's organization. That kept him away from Friday's game, but the younger Johnson said he'd try to make the trip to Sarasota later in the spring. But this, a trip to Fort Myers, was something different. Johnson relished the chance to play at home because he credits the community with helping him succeed.
"The coaches did a lot for me," said Johnson, who later attended Stetson University and Florida Atlantic University. "That's kind of where I grew up and learned that I wanted to play baseball for a living. I had great coaches that stuck with me and helped me mature both on and off the field."
Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta's manager, had nothing but high praise for Johnson before the game. Gonzalez stressed that Johnson was coming into a difficult situation as a replacement for eight-time All-Star Chipper Jones, and he said that he handled the pressure with aplomb.
Gonzalez raved about Johnson's hitting approach, and he said that on defense, the former fourth-round draftee has an outstanding arm. "If he catches it, you're out," said Gonzalez. But the bigger deal, for Atlanta and for Johnson, is the way that he was able to seamlessly integrate to his new team.
"People said he was a throw-in in the Martin Prado for Justin Upton trade, but we knew what we were getting," said Gonzalez. "We didn't know we were going to get a guy that was going to be fighting for the batting title all the way to the last 10 days of the season, but we knew we were going to get a guy with a good approach at the plate, and a guy that knows what he's doing hitting. He uses all the fields. He's comfortable hitting with two strikes. It was a pleasant surprise."
Johnson, originally drafted by the Astros, was traded to Arizona at the 2012 non-waiver Trade Deadline and then found his way to the Braves right before the 2013 campaign. And now, after he's had such an exceptional season, how does he feel about entering a new season with expectations?
"It's good, but I've got to keep working," he said. "When you do good things in this game, people kind of expect it now. I've got to work that much harder to try to make sure I can do it again. I'm a confident guy. This game's hard enough. If you fail seven out of 10 times, you've got to be confident in yourself at least to go up there and know that you can do it at this level."
Varvaro out to prove he deserves spot in bullpen
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Braves know what they're going to get from Anthony Varvaro. And they like what they have. Varvaro, a 29-year-old right-hander, is out of options and perhaps on the bubble for one of the last bullpen jobs in Atlanta, but manager Fredi Gonzalez likes the way he competes.
"He's one of those guys that you feel comfortable with. I don't have to see much from him," Gonzalez said. "He just needs to go out and get his innings in and see what happens. For me, he's not on a tryout. I've seen enough and feel comfortable with what he can do."
That must be reassuring to Varvaro, who has worked to a 12.46 ERA in his first four relief appearances this spring. Varvaro, a Staten Island native, was originally drafted by Seattle in 2005 and didn't make it to the Majors until 2010. And in his first three cracks in the Majors, he never really got a chance to stick.
Varvaro worked in 20 games or fewer in each of his first three big league seasons, but he finally broke through with a 2.82 ERA in 62 appearances last season. Now, even though he's struggled in Spring Training, Varvaro knows -- and so do the Braves -- that he's an established Major League arm.
"I don't really know if it was ever really a question of if. It's kind of like, 'If I got an opportunity, would I take advantage of it?'" said Varvaro of experiencing sustained success in the Majors. "That's what I did last year. I guess you do get a little more confident with that. Take it and run with it, hopefully. I guess I feel a lot more comfortable being out there. You kind of have that feeling that you belong."
But in the big leagues -- and in countless other professions -- it's not always that simple. Varvaro knows it's a numbers game, and he knows that Atlanta could opt to keep another arm for the Opening Day roster. And if that happened, he could wind up as a trade chip or a waiver claim.
Varvaro, who pitched his college ball at St. John's, said he can't really afford to think about that potential development right now. Thinking about the future can be counterproductive for a big league player, and Varvaro just wants to worry about the things he can control in Spring Training.
"Being out of options and having had success previously, you know that somebody could take a shot," he said. "Ultimately, this is the team I'm playing for. The Braves are across my chest. I want to be here. I love these guys. We had a great run last year and we're looking to do better things moving forward. But if they have other plans, someone might have different plans for me on their club."
And that, after seven years in the Minor Leagues, has to be reassuring.
Varvaro struggled in Seattle's organization until the Braves claimed him off waivers in 2011, and he immediately set about repaying their confidence. Varvaro pitched to a 2.90 ERA for Triple-A Gwinnett in 2011, and then he improved on that performance with a 2.23 mark in 33 games in '12.
Those bookend seasons presaged his 2013 success in Atlanta, and Gonzalez surely took notice. Now, with three weeks to make up his mind, Gonzalez is keeping his eyes on Varvaro.
"Who knows? It's so early," Gonzalez said of the roster crunch. "If we had to break Spring Training today or tomorrow to start the season, I'd count on him. He'd be one of the guys in the bullpen."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.