After struggling for the first month and a half of the 2012 season (8.64 ERA in 8.1 IP with 2.28 WHIP), Kerry Wood has announced his retirement. Remember how he was the closer for the Indians a few years back? I kind of wish I didn’t remember (although to be fair, it wasn’t necessarily all bad).
In December of 2008 Wood signed a 2-year, $20.5 million deal to take over the closer role from the departing Joe Borowski. When you are taking over for a pitcher that is nicknamed “Joe Blow” for his affinity for blowing saves, the bar is set somewhat low. At the same time, you have to consider the fact that this was a pretty major free agent deal for the Indians. Think about their biggest free agent signing of the most recent offseason – Casey Kotchman on a 1-year, $3 million deal. It was kind of a big deal for the Indians to fork over roughly $10 million per for Wood.
It was even a bit more perplexing to me at the time when you think about when Wood was signed. The Indians had high hopes for the 2008 season. They just missed the World Series in 2007 and had an almost identical roster returning for the 2008 season. Instead, the Tribe got off to a slow start as the bullpen struggled, the offense struggled and starters like Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez struggled. There was a fire sale that summer, and by the end of the year CC Sabathia was wearing a Brewers (soon to be Yankees) uniform, Paul Byrd went to the Red Sox, and Casey Blake was wearing Dodger blue. It seemed as if they were venturing toward another rebuilding phase, but perhaps they thought they had enough left in the tank for a run in 2009. Cliff Lee had just come off his Cy Young season, and with a resurgence from Carmona/Hernandez and the bullpen, maybe it would be enough to lead to contention.
Wood was mediocre at best in his first season as the Indians closer, even though he’d just come off a great year as the closer for the Chicago Cubs in 2008. As I’m sure you remember, this was the team that made him a star as a 20-year-old starter that fanned 20 batters in a game in 1998; matching Roger Clemens’ single-game strikeout record. Every year, everyone seemed to think that the tandem of Wood and Mark Prior at the top of the Cubs’ rotation would make them unstoppable, but unfortunately neither could stay healthy. After years of battling injuries, the Cubs finally moved Wood to the bullpen to preserve his arm. In his final season with the Cubs before he came to Cleveland, Wood was 5-4 with a 3.26 ERA, 1.085 WHIP and 34 saves. His next year in Cleveland he went 3-3 with a 4.25 ERA, 1.38 WHIP and 20 saves. Wood had fewer save opportunities with a bad Indians team in 2009; just 26 opportunities, compared to 40 the prior year in Chicago. That means he blew six saves in both seasons, but with fewer opportunities in 2009 it gave him a 77% success rate, compared to 85% in 2008.
In 2010, Wood was traded to the New York Yankees on the final day of the trade deadline for a player to be named. Prior to the trade, Wood went 1-4 with a 6.30 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, and 8 saves in 11 opportunities (73%) so there probably weren’t many fans that were sad to see him go. I remember that I hoped the implosion would continue once he hit the Bronx, but it was a different Kerry Wood with the Yankees – 2-0 with a 0.69 ERA, and 1.23 WHIP. With Mariano Rivera around, Wood obviously would fill a middle reliever role in New York. He did get one save opportunity once he went to the Yankees, which he blew.
After that season he returned to the Cubs, the team that drafted him in the first round of the 1995 draft. He resigned with them again this offseason so he’ll retire as a Cubbie.
One last thing I feel I should mention about Wood’s brief time in Cleveland. Each year, the Indians hold a really nice gathering for season ticket holders; the past few seasons it’s been held at the zoo after a Sunday afternoon game. Players are positioned at tables all around the zoo, and you get to run around and try to gather as many autographs as possible in 1-2 hours. I like it because you get autographs, and it has the added mystery of a scavenger hunt as you use a map to locate the various players.
Because you can’t necessarily reach everyone in such a short period of time, you prioritize. Maybe you already have 5 copies of Aaron Laffey’s signature, and you don’t necessarily need to take that number to 6. Maybe it’s someone in Cleveland on a brief contract that you want to nab before they depart the team. This was part of the thinking behind my husband and I’s divide and conquer strategy in 2009 and 2010. We each had a list of players we wanted to find, and we split up in order to get as many as possible. In 2009, my husband had Wood on his short list. By the time he arrived at his table though, there was someone sitting there that was quite obviously not Kerry Wood. Rafael Betancourt, who wasn’t even supposed to be at the event since he was on the DL (they don’t promise that players on the DL will attend) was signing in Wood’s place. The person from the Indians working at the table told us that Wood was ill, and that Betancourt graciously agreed to fill in for him. Maybe Wood was really ill; he pitched rather poorly that day and his performance certainly made me feel ill.
We didn’t think much of it, and decided to target him again in 2010 because we knew he wasn’t likely to be with the team much longer. Again, my husband arrived at his table, only to find it empty. This time the worker said that Wood was coming, he was just running late. They gave my husband a little slip of paper that claimed he could jump to the front of the line once Wood arrived, since he (and a number of other people) wasted their time coming to an empty table. He kept checking back throughout the day – still no Wood. The worker finally had to admit that she didn’t know what happened to him, that he was supposed to be there.
This irritated me for several reasons. The event was billed as the entire active roster, and every other player managed to make their way to the zoo after the game. The 2010 missed appearance was even more annoying to me, since he never even told anyone he wouldn’t be able to make it. He left some poor employee to make lame excuses to irritated fans all day, when he could have at least told someone he wouldn’t be able to make it again. Plus if you’re the Indians “major” free agent signing, and you’re getting about five or six times the amount of money they typically hand out to free agents, the least you could do is sit at a table in the zoo for an hour and sign some autographs.
So while I commend Wood for a solid (yet injury filled) career, and lament what could have been if he did not spend so much time on the DL, I was never sorry to see him leave Cleveland. While he may have been an upgrade on “Joe Blow’s” 2008 performance, that’s still not saying much.