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Position Report: Kerry Wood
by alex ciepley
Christian: Sometimes, when you follow one team very closely, you can get too close to the players on it. Kerry Wood burst onto the scene, fully-formed like Athena from the skull of Zeus, in 1998. His 20-strikeout game against the Astros was a thing of beauty, and something I will never forget. Unfortunately, one of the reasons he was so major league-ready at such a young age was because of the amount of work he'd already put in. The Cubs were actually reasonably careful with him in the minors; he had thrown only 7 1/3 innings in '95, followed by 114 1/3 in '96, 151 2/3 in '97, and one five-inning tuneup in Iowa before he made his major-league debut.
But even before he was signed, there had been discussion of the possibility of overuse at Grand Prairie high school, so it was disappointing, but not entirely unexpected, when he went on the shelf with an arm injury. I was in the crowd for his return against Atlanta in the playoffs, hoping against hope that he would be able to re-appear and stave off what felt like inevitable elimination by the Braves. Alas, despite five gritty innings from Kerry, the Cubs fell.
It wasn't until May, 2000 that Kerry would throw another pitch as a Cub, and though his return was cause for optimism it was evident throughout the 2000 season that Kerry wasn't 100% yet. He finished the year with a 4.80 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 1.5. By the next year, though, he was showing signs of what everyone thought he could be -- by mid-June he was 7-4, and had struck out 10 or more six times. Of course, he had walked 3 or more eleven times, too, and spent some time on the DL. But overall, he showed plenty for us to be optimistic about. And yet, the entire time, I had this nagging voice in the back of my head. "He's never going to fulfill his potential." "Follow the Rickey Plan and trade him now while his upside is highest." "Don't pay him too much or you'll be saddled with his contract -- what if he never gets over his control problems?"
After the surgery, then-Cubs-GM Ed Lynch said, "he's got a new arm. It's almost literally like having a new arm. And now he's got to learn how to pitch again with a new arm. It's going to take time." It apparently took nearly three years -- 2001 and 2002 were good, but 2003 was a revelation: 11 games with 10 or more K's, a K/BB ratio of 2.66, and a career-high 14 wins. He was rewarded with a shiny, new contract and, for a little while at least, my inner doubting voice was silenced. Let's hope 2004 is the year I can actually get rid of it for good.
Alex: With rotation mate Prior out in the early going, Wood finds himself, perhaps a bit unexpectedly, to be one of the preseason favorites to win the NL Cy Young Award. At least that's what those smartypants at that all-baseball.com website would have you believe. Wood can still be a bit maddeningly inconsistent from time to time, but last year he demonstrated -- especially in the playoffs -- that he's arrived as one of the best pitchers in the game. His awesome spring training did nothing to lessen the feeling that this year is going to be something special.
You know what was encouraging about Wood's opening day start? That Baker limited him to fewer than 100 pitches. I may be one of the few people who's not unbelievably worried about Prior's injury, so I guess I can say this with a straightish face: if there is some good to have come from Mark's early season woes, it may be that the situation has put a bit of fear into Baker, and that seed of doubt -- along with a Chicago media that is more willing to question Baker's methods this year -- may reduce the staff's workloads a wee bit. I'm not for pitch counts just for pitch counts' sake, but Kerry looked tired in the 5th, and it was wise to make that his last inning. But I'll go out on a limb and suggest that, if not for the Blinking Warning Sign known as Prior's Achilles, Baker would have run Wood right back out there in the sixth.
Now, I'm probably wrong about all of this, and will be proven so in Wood's next start, when Kerry will throw 162 pitches, the last of which will cross the plate alongside his freshly detached forearm. (jinx!)
Wood had an okay game, and he wasn't as bad as the line looked. Not much was hard hit against him, and the Reds runners that crossed home plate had each reached base by:
a) a wild pitch strikeout
b) a walk
c) a soft liner
d) a walk
So, this was all-in-all your typical Wood game -- Kerry plays his special version of Russian Roulette, seeing if his walks, hit batsmen, and wild pitches will bite him in the butt. He didn't fare especially well in round one, but his luck will even out over the season. I expect great things.
PECOTA 15-10, 3.38, 241 K, 86 BB, 210 IP
ZIPS 12-11, 3.66, 254 K, 81 BB, 199 IP