Wood should fit nicely as closer
Hard-throwing righty ready to shine for Cubs once again
MESA, Ariz. -- Kerry Wood has never been a closer before, but he's a closer now. Wood has become almost a mythical figure in Chicago Cubs lore, but now he's going to be a ninth-inning reality.This is a move that makes sense, given Wood's superior stuff and his competitive disposition. If it doesn't work out, the Cubs have other options. But if Wood remains healthy, it should work. Manager Lou Piniella announced on Monday that Wood would be the Cubs closer. It's a new role for Wood, but what isn't at all new is the concept of Wood playing a very prominent part for this club. After a truly substantial interval, in which it appeared that his career had come to an end, the Cubs are back to relying on him in a big way. Wood is 30 now, but it was not all that long ago that he and Mark Prior were considered the foundation of this franchise's future. A dismaying variety of arm problems sabotaged that concept in both cases, and Prior has departed, trying to get back to full strength this season with the San Diego Padres. Wood's only significant run of relief experience came last season, 22 appearances in which he generally worked with effectiveness. But the important thing was that he emerged from that work without the usual shoulder problems. If he was perpetually being injured as a starting pitcher, but he was healthy as a reliever, a lesson was learned. He came to camp this spring and displayed Kerry Wood-type velocity, reaching the high 90s. After a three-way competition for the closer's role that included veteran reliever Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol, who was brilliant in a setup role as a rookie last season, Wood won the job. "Look, I would have felt very comfortable with Howry, Marmol or Wood in that situation," Piniella said. "Whoever would have emerged, I would have been well-pleased with. And I thought that all three would do a really nice job. We decided on Kerry Wood. He's thrown the ball exceedingly well all spring, he's got experience and he's earned it. "Kerry has really, really thrown the ball well this spring, I mean really thrown it well. Good velocity, command, he's got experience. He's got all the ingredients. In 10 innings this spring, Wood has a 3.60 ERA, but more impressively, no walks and 10 strikeouts. This does not have to be the completely overpowering pitcher who 10 years ago struck out 20 batters in his fifth Major League start. But the improved command wouldn't hurt. The questions about Wood's durability will persist, especially since he has not had an injury-free season since 2003, his last year as a regular in the Cubs rotation. But as Piniella pointed out, the closer's role is not as physically demanding as some other pitching tasks.
"There's more durability issues, up and down, pitching in those seventh- and eighth-inning roles than there is in the closer's role," the manager said.Wood has pitched back-to-back games only twice in his career, including pitching in both games of a doubleheader last season. His new role is likely to demand much more of this kind of work, but Piniella said that was not a concern. "There's no reason why he can't pitch three days in a row. There's no reason why," Piniella said. "We're not going to do anything to jeopardize Kerry or any of our other pitchers to sustain an injury. If it happens, it's going to be because it's going to happen, not because they're overloaded. "But he can pitch an inning three days in a row. And again, we've got Marmol and we've got Howry who can slip right into that situation when Kerry needs a breather, and they'll do a nice job for us. So we've got no problem." Now, the rest is up to Kerry Wood. "I'm honored that they picked me for the job," he said. "I'm excited about it and looking forward to getting started." As a rookie closer, the mental aspect of this job is going to require some research, Wood indicated. "The physical preparation is going to be the same as what I've been doing," he said. "Physically, I probably won't change a whole lot. Obviously, the mental preparation is probably important than anything. Especially first couple of times I get in there, the adrenaline is going to be racing. I'll just try to do my best to control it, but also use it. "I'll try to talk to some of the [closers] that I've played with and some of the guys I've played against. You take a little bit from everybody, but you see how everybody goes about doing their job and how other closers go about getting their work done and the mental preparation it takes when you come into a game." Wood always had what is referred to as "closer's stuff." Looking at the role when he was younger, he said: "I thought: 'It'd be fun to do that.' I didn't think it would be a reality." It is reality now. For Wood, who once thought that his career was at an end, just being able to pitch in full health and effectiveness is the primary blessing. "I appreciate the fact that I've been given another chance to get out there and play the game I love," Wood said. "And I'm going to take full advantage of it." And now the Cubs are taking full advantage by making Wood their closer. It is a new role for him, but he has tangible abilities and the intangible qualities to make this move work.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.