Some out of nowhere news has come from Chicago this morning. Kerry Wood, the one-time can’t miss phenom of the Cubs, will reportedly retire after tonight’s Cubs/White Sox interleague game. The man they once called “Kid-K” bursted onto the baseball scene as a 21-year old rookie from Texas who had unhittable stuff. You recall his one hit, 20-strikeout game against Houston Astros in his second month as a Major Leaguer of course. The future looked unbelievable bright for Wood.
But with his violent delivery, came a rash of injuries. Wood missed the entire 1999 season after needing Tommy John surgery. Other than the 2002 and 2003 seasons, he was never able to make the standard 30 starts regularly. The inability to stay healthy had the Cubs thinking the best move for him was a change. So in 2007 after starting the season on the 60-day DL with elbow soreness, the Cubs made him a middle reliever. A year later, he became the Cubs closer where he save 34 games in 39 opportunities and posted an ERA of 3,26 while striking out 84 in 66.1 innings. Kerry was mpressive enough to hit the free agency market and cash in.
It was the 2009 offseason. Your Cleveland Indians, a year removed from being a team that was one game away from the World Series, thought they were still contenders after a 81-81 season. Cliff Lee was heading the rotation. You still had Victor Martinez , Grady Sizemore (coming off a 33 homer season), Asdrubal Cabrera, and Johnny Peralta. A trade to add Mark DeRosa to play third base was made.
The 2008 Bullpen was a disaster. They had handed the ball to Jensen Lewis over the last two months of the season where he was 13 for 13 in saves. But Mark Shapiro, Chris Antonetti, and their team of scouts thought they needed to do better than Jenny Lew. Besides, Lewis, Rafael Betancourt, and Rafael Perez were so good two seasons earlier that they were thought to be the perfect setup trio. All they needed was a “real” closer.
Shockingly, the Indians came almost out of nowhere, to sign Wood to a two-year, $20.5 million deal with a vesting option for a third year. You look back on that contract now, for the position and for the dollar value, and you have to say this was one of the worst signings/ideas in Indians history. It is not just because Wood was average at best in his time in Cleveland. The view of closers in Major League baseball has changed almost entirely since then.
The “closers grow on trees” comment that John Hart made years ago rings true. Unless you are a Mariano Rivera type, giving closers big money is looked at almost foolishly now. Not to mention the fact that teams seem to change closers nowadays almost year to year. Fernando Rodney, the current Tamnpa Bay Rays closer, is their eighth different leader in saves in the last eight seasons. And this is a team that has contended for the last four years.
Back to Wood. His first season was an abject disaster. Victor Martinez missed most of the season after injuring his knee. He tried to come back early but had zero power. It was the one lost year of his career. It was also the first year in the decline of Grady Sizemore, who only played in 106 games. Travis Hafner spent time on the DL and was limited to 94 games. DeRosa was traded after two months for Chris Perez (one of the great steals of the last 10 years). The rotation was essentially Lee, Carl Pavano, David Huff (in his one good year), and a bunch of guys floating in and out. Lewis (4.61 ERA) and Rafael Perez (7.31 ERA) were both horrific. Betancourt pitched in only 29 games due to injuries.
All of this added up to Wood being essentially useless. We found out right away with him was that he had to pitch a lot to stay sharp. The problem was the Tribe was never winning, so he didn’t get regular work. Wood only notched 20 saves in 55 games and posted an ERA of 4.26. For a veteran who came to Cleveland to win, this isn’t exactly what he has signed up for.
In his second season in Wahoo Red, White, and Blue, things had changed. The Indians were back in a full rebuild under new manager Manny Acta. Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee were both gone, others would soon follow. When Wood was healthy, he was very inconsistent. His vesting option was only going to kick in if he closed out 55 games on the season. It was the main reason he wasn’t dealt during the offseason. Things didn’t start well for Wood on the field either.
He not only landed back on the DL with a back injury in May, but he faced another problem, a young, cheaper, challenger to his job. Chris Perez took over his job and was fantastic and it was obvious Wood wasn’t long for Cleveland. He returned from the DL, but saved just eight games, blowing three, and posted an ERA of 6.30. The writing was on the wall. The Indians just needed to find a partner.
Because Wood was making over $10 million, nobody wanted to touch him unless the Indians agreed to take on some money. Only July 31st, just before the trade deadline, the Tribe sent Wood to the New York Yankees for two players to be named later. Wood became a setup man for Rivera, Perez took over the closers role and hasn’t looked back. Neither has the Tribe.
I can’t lie and say I didn’t like the Wood signing when it went down. I thought we finally had a power-throwing strikeout closer for the first time since Jose Mesa (sigh). With the arms they had coming back, I saw a great chance for a real high-quality bullpen. Ah, the best laid plans….
Wood never really fit in here, wasn’t great with the media and seemed like he realized once he played elsewhere that he never should have left the comforts of Chicago. That would become obvious after he returned to the Cubs in 2011 for less than half of what he was worth on the open market as a setup guy, $1.5 million. Wood had just come off a sterling 24 game audition with the Yankees where he allowed just two earned runs in 26 innings and could have cashed in. He just wanted to be back in his adopted home. Who could blame him.
After a so-so season with Cubs, he came back for one more year this season, but has decided that tonight will be his final game in a Major League uniform. He will finish his 14 year-career making a total of just over $70 million for 86 wins, 63 saves, an ERA of 3.67, and 1581 K’s in 1379.1 innings pitched (leading up to tonight).
The Indians would love to have a do-over on his signing for sure, but this was a case where they actually were “going for it.” It just didn’t work out.