With good reason, many fans are skeptical of the happy face being put on Kerry Wood's injury diagnosis. Last year's out-of-action time estimates for several Cub players turned out to be so painfully optimistic that few fans are allowing themselves to exhale on the recent Wood report.
Though it is easy to scapegoat someone for these misleading injury statements, we should all take a step back and remind ourselves that there is no organized conspiracy afoot within the Cubs' organization to try and apply fresh paint over a crumbling wall.
Jim Hendry isn't sitting in his GM chair stroking his cat (a la Dr. Evil), devising new ways to add another year on top of a century of fans' misery. More likely, rosy public statements by Hendry and Dusty Baker are not sinister in intent, but nothing more than human nature to try and put a positive spin on news until more facts come in.
Would we rather have them predicting the end of the world the minute Wood rubs his shoulder?
Another reason not to hit the panic button just yet is that the Cubs actually have a licensed trainer on payroll this year; not just some guy with a scalpel who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.
The current diagnosis of bursitis in Wood's shoulder does not appear serious. Wood may not miss a regular season start; he may miss 10. We won't know until we know. That said, Wood's most recent ailment has forced me to admit something that has been slowly creeping into my thoughts these past few seasons:
Kerry Wood will never be a 20-win, Cy Young Award pitcher.
More importantly, it has led me to consider an option I once thought preposterous: unless Wood breaks out this season, the Cubs should strongly consider converting him to closer by 2006.
Early on, fans were awestruck by Wood's imposing Roger Clemens-like physique, believing that he could match the Rocket's legacy for endurance and rack up a shelf full of hardware in the process. Yet, while the diminutive Greg Maddux has logged at least 212 innings in eight of the past nine seasons, Wood, now entering his seventh major league campaign, has eclipsed this milestone only once (to be fair, he came just one inning shy as recently as 2003).
And Wood's seasonal average for wins (11) is far closer to single digits than it is to 20. In fact, Wood's winning proficiency in the first three years of his career (33-19) stands far ahead of his performance the past three seasons (34-31). You don't have to be Bill James to recognize this statistical trend is not heading in the right direction.
Wood has delivered in more big games than I can count, including his performance against the Atlanta Braves that vaulted the Cubs into the 2003 NLCS. However, I was struck by some intriguing numbers, which show that Wood wears down over the course of a season, and that his arm may fare better as a closer. Consider the following:
Over the last three years, in July, August, September and October (a total of 10 months), Wood's monthly ERA was lower than 3.00 only twice, and in four of the 10 months, it was over 4.00.
Wood's declining production the past few years, granted in part due to injuries, is not the only reason to consider the conversion. As this offseason demonstrated, elite closers are in very short supply. Second, elite closers are extremely expensive, and most teams end up paying through the nose for guys that have one breakout year. Last year's Danny Kolb could also become this season's Billy Koch.
In our heads, we may think of Wood as a 20-game winner, but on paper he is only giving the Cubs 11 victories a season. For 2006, it would not be difficult to find that kind of proficiency in the free agent market while Wood makes the transition to closer.
I hope that Wood does break through in 2005 and renders this discussion moot, but if the future turns out like the past, Wood can save the day for the Cubs in a whole new way.
Brian Lustig is a native of Glencoe, Ill. who now resides in Rockville, Md. He received a Master of Arts degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelors degree from Emory University in Atlanta. Have a comment for Blusty? Send him e-mail by clicking here.