Major league teams had to finalize their 40-man rosters on Friday afternoon, which means they could start picking over unprotected players in other organizations. The Reds took quick advantage. As their first acquisition of the off-season, the club signed right-handed relief pitcher Blake Wood (30) to a major league contract yesterday. The terms of the deal have not yet been made public. Wood pitched all last year for the Pirates’ AAA team in Indianapolis.

Wood’s Background

Blake Wood grew up in the Atlanta area, so naturally he worshiped the Braves great pitchers of the 1990s. Wood recalls that John Smoltz signed his ball glove when he was 13. In college, Wood pitched for hometown Georgia Tech and reached the College World Series in 2006. In the major league draft that summer, the Kansas City Royals selected him in the third round and Wood left college for professional baseball.

The 6’5” Wood worked his way up the Royals organization through 2011, pitching in a total of 106 games for the major league club in 2010 and 2011 (4.15 FIP).

In May 2012, the Royals announced that Wood had torn his right UCL and required Tommy John surgery. Cleveland claimed him off waivers that November and Wood pitched 27 innings at various stops in their organization in 2013. Wood mostly pitched at the AAA level for Cleveland, but did get called up for a tiny bit (1.1 innings) of major league work. He then signed a one-year deal with Cleveland for 2014 but was DFA’d in May after 8 innings of AAA work.

The Royals claimed Wood off waivers in June 2014. He pitched 34.2 innings for Kansas City’s affiliates before he was DFA’d again in September and declared a free agent. The Pirates signed him to a minor league deal in November 2014.

Wood pitched well for the Pirates’ AAA club. He made 57 appearances, all in relief, throwing 58.2 innings. He struck out 70 batters and walked 25.

Scouting Report

The scouting report (Doug Gray) on Wood is clear. He is hard-thrower – working in the 94-97 mph range with his fastball, occasionally reaching 100+ mph. He uses a slider as a second pitch against right-handed batters and a splitter to put away lefties.

“A couple times we had him at a hundred and 101,” said Dean Treanor, Wood’s AAA manager. “There’s just a lot of good things going on with him. I think he’s driven to get back there and show he belongs.”

With an arm like that, strikeouts have never been a problem for Wood. His issue has always been control. At his various minor league stops in 2014, Wood walked 31 batters in 43 innings.

But last year working with the Pirates instructors, Wood found a way to cut his walks in half. The Pirates worked on Wood’s command of his fastball and trust in his secondary pitches. They installed him as their AAA closer. However, Wood never got a call-up to the Pirates, as their major league bullpen stayed healthy throughout 2015.

Why Did the Pirates Let Wood Go?

Why did the Pirates let a power-armed AAA closer leave? The Rule 5 Draft.

The Rule 5 Draft is conducted each year in the winter. Teams can select certain non-amateurs – those already on major and minor league rosters – from other organizations. Players not on a 40-man roster, but at least 22 years old can be chosen.

If an organization drafts a Rule 5 pick from another team, that player must go on and stay on the MLB 25-man roster all year. So they don’t happen often. A few famous players were selected this way: Roberto Clemente, Johan Santana and Bobby Bonilla, for example. The Cubs claimed Josh Hamilton in the Rule 5 Draft in 2006 and traded him to the Reds that day.

Teams protect established players and certain prospects from being selected by another organization by placing that player on their 40-man roster. The Reds placed Robert Stephenson on the 40-man roster a few days ago. That’s because he turned 22 last February.

The Pirates were in a tight roster squeeze this winter. They chose to protect four of their top young prospects and not Blake Wood. Wood doesn’t have options left, so once the Pirates didn’t put him on their 40-man roster last week, he became free. The Reds signed Wood as a free agent, not a Rule 5 draft pick.

Pluses and Minuses

Blake Wood has pitched two full seasons – 2014 and 2015 – since undergoing Tommy John surgery. That’s the relevant data, putting significant emphasis on the most recent year.

The main positive is Wood’s elite velocity, which has translated into a high strikeout rate. He struck out 28 percent of the batters he faced last year. That would have ranked second in the Reds bullpen, below you-know-who and just ahead of Jumbo Diaz.

You would expect pitchers at Wood’s age to start showing a decline in velocity due to aging. But research shows for pitchers who remain healthy, Tommy John surgery generally forestalls velocity declines.

Wood also cut his walk-rate significantly from 2014 (16 percent) to 2015 (10 percent). For context, last year, Aroldis Chapman’s walk-rate was 11.9 percent and J.J. Hoover’s was 11.7 percent. The rest of the Reds regular relievers had a walk-rate around 6-7 percent. MLB average for relievers was 8.6 percent.

The main negative is that those numbers – strikeouts and walks – were from facing AAA batters, not major league hitters. Reading that Walt Jocketty mentioned Wood’s saves last year brought back horrifying memories of Kevin Gregg taking the mound in the eighth inning on Opening Day.

The use of a major league contract for Wood was aggressive. It means Wood goes on the 40-man roster. Whatever dollar amount he agreed to is guaranteed, whether or not he is cut. I’d be surprised if the deal is much more than for league minimum. A half million dollars is a lot to you and me (and to Blake Wood), but in the grand scheme of the Reds budget, it’s a rounding error.

Bottom Line

The Reds have a deep scouting file on Blake Wood – he pitched eleven games against the Bats last year, plus his other stats for Indy. So they know what they’re getting. It’s not complicated. If they signed him primarily for the fastball, good. If they took him for the AAA saves, yikes.

Wood’s arm, despite his age, is promising. While high-velocity pitchers are becoming more common, guys that pitch 94-97 and hit 100-101 are worth hoarding if the club can. I doubt you use up a 40-man spot in the winter for Wood on a contending team (see Pittsburgh), but that’s not the Reds’ position.

The vast, vast majority of relief pitchers are inconsistent from year to year. To build a quality bullpen, you spread out the risk and increase your chances for reward by loading up on numbers. Unless the Reds get into a 40-man roster squeeze between now and spring training, the Blake Wood signing is solid risk/reward.

It’s meh mostly. But better-upside meh than Badenhop at a quarter the cost.