Commentary

Is Kerry Wood gone for good?

Former phenom became a reliable setup man; could he still be a solution for Yanks?

Updated: November 3, 2010, 8:11 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Today is the day Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte officially become temporary non-New York Yankees, their contracts having expired with the conclusion of the World Series.

Jeter and Mo, of course, will be back, and maybe Pettitte will, too, once he has gone through what has become an annual offseason Hamlet routine in which he decides whether to play or not to play.

Kerry Wood has been a non-Yankee for a little longer -- as expected, the Yankees last week declined to pick up his $11 million option for 2011. But unlike the Core Three, Wood is more than likely to remain so.

There is another suitor involved -- the Chicago Cubs, Wood's employers for the first 10 years of his career, during which he went from phenom starter to injured bust to successful closer. The Cubs have let it be known they would welcome him back at the right price -- and pending the numbers coming out of the organizational meetings going on right now in Tampa, Fla., the Yankees seem understandably disinclined to commit a lot of money to a soon-to-be-34-year-old pitcher with an injury history longer than Andrew Brackman's right arm.

[+] EnlargeKerry
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesKerry Wood looked like a long-term late-inning answer for the Yankees this year.

It is possible that the Yankees and Wood were members of a mutual exploitation society -- the Yanks using him as the most reliable bridge to their closer and Wood using them as a means of showcasing his potential as a closer himself -- and that their association, though successful, is destined to go no further.

But in light of the job he did as the setup man for Rivera over his two-month Yankees tenure, and in view of the fact that no one else in the Yankees' bullpen showed himself capable of doing it as well, both sides might want to take a closer look at renewing their alliance.

Really, it all comes down to what Wood still wants out of his career.

If it is all about money and the ego boost that comes with being the closer, even for a bad team, then the Yankees probably have no shot.

But if it is about adding one of the trinkets that has so far eluded him in his career, then maybe they do.

By his own admission, Wood will never be a starting pitcher again. His surgically repaired elbow and shoulder will not allow it. So he is never going to win a Cy Young. But he has already been the Rookie of the Year, led the league in strikeouts and matched Roger Clemens for most strikeouts in a nine-inning game (20) when he was only 20 years old.

And he has made a fortune, nearly $70 million so far. But all that money can never buy him what the Yankees might be able to get him, which is a World Series ring. After 102 years of organization-wide futility, odds are he's not getting it as a Cub.

But he might well get it as a Yankee, even if it means he has to carry a lunchbox for Rivera for another year or two.

For the two months that he wore pinstripes, Wood was noncommittal about his plans for 2011. He seemed to know the Yankees would not be picking up his option, and really, who could blame them? And you got a sense that despite his satisfaction with his performance as a setup man, he really would have been happier as a closer, something he could never be as a Yankee in 2010.

That is something he's going to have to work out. The Cubs used Carlos Marmol as their full-time closer for the first time this season and he did well, converting 38 of 43 save opportunities. But you know Wood is not going back to Chicago to serve as the setup man for Carlos Marmol.

If he goes back, it would be to close, period. Wood's agent, Pat Rooney, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

But if Wood is able to swallow that aspiration and return to the Yankees as a setup man, it resolves what will be a huge problem for the Yankees starting from the first day of spring training. Namely, who pitches the eighth inning next year?

In 2010, they tried Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson. Both failed. And once Wood came aboard in August, neither of them was really in the conversation anymore. He was that good.

Plus, he provides insurance for the unthinkable, but perhaps inevitable prospect of life in the post-Mariano era.

Rivera had one of his best seasons in years in 2010 and there is no reason to believe he will be anything less in 2011. But the reality is, Mo will turn 41 on Nov. 29. He will spend much of next season more than halfway to 42. If he goes down for any length of time, exactly who in the Yankees' bullpen do you trust to nail down those crucial last three outs of a game?

Precisely. Wood may not be the pitcher he was back in 1998, when he regularly flirted with triple digits on the radar gun, but he can still hit 95 and has real swing-and-miss stuff with his breaking pitches.

He's way too old be an heir apparent, but he certainly would serve a reasonable backup plan, which right now, the Yankees do not have. They behave as if Rivera will go on forever.

The questions, of course, revolve around Wood's injury history -- he has been on the disabled list 14 times in 13 seasons and has not put together a full, injury-free season since 2003 -- and the wisdom of committing years and dollars to a player who might well break down again at any moment.

But in talking to pitching coaches around the league, the consensus seems to be that Wood's arm -- he suffered a partially torn rotator cuff in 2006 and had undergone Tommy John surgery on his elbow back in 1999 -- appears sound again.

He did spend two stints on the DL with the Indians in 2010, but one was for a muscle strain in his back, the other for a blister on his index finger.

"He made it through one full year healthy with his arm, and that's a good sign,'' said one pitching coach, who requested anonymity. "Once you've made it through a full year healthy and your stuff is comparable to what it was, typically you're basically healthy then."

And since Wood now typically throws about 60 innings per year -- he threw 47 in 2010 -- being 34 does not seem to be an impediment. "His age wouldn't be a concern for me at all,'' the coach said. "Guys with his kind of stuff, who can get out lefties and righties, they're invaluable."

Obviously they have a monetary value, and it would be up to the Yankees to determine that value for Wood.

And Wood would have to decide what he, too, is comfortable with: a closer's job, and a presumably bigger paycheck, with a team that has little or no chance to win, or a secondary role, and a smaller paycheck, with a team that will give him every chance to win.

Jeter, Rivera and maybe Pettitte will be Yankees again, by mutual consent.

Kerry Wood, too, could be a Yankee again. But in this case, the call will have to be his.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
Follow Wallace on Twitter »  Chat archive »

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE