Many have suggested that we use Wood as a dominant setup man or as a closer. The rationale is that he did well out of the pen for a short stint last season, and that it will put less of a strain on his arm... and we all know about his history of arm injuries. The main argument i've seen against using Wood as a closer has nothing to do with his ability to do the job, nor with the Cubs' current roster. Rather, the main rationale against using Wood as a closer has been that we would be overpaying for that position. Most either accept this argument, or argue that we could just afford to take the hit in salary for a year or two.
I think that Wood is actually an afforable option as a closer, if he performs at the same level as the top tier of MLB closers. This has become true after an off-season which saw closers sign high priced contracts. To wit, Wagner's 4 year, $43 million deal with the Mets, B.J. Ryan's 5 year, $47 million dollar deal with the Blue Jays, and Tom Gordon's 3 year, $18 million contract with the Phillies. These three closers will be earning $10.75 million, $9.4 million, and $6 million per year, respectively. Ryan's contract has been analyzed as being properly valued by David Gassko of Hardball Times. Wood is in the middle of a 3-year contract extension that pays a total of either $32.5 million over 3 years or $42.5 million over 4 years. That's an average of $10.5-$10.8 million per season. The contract is backloaded, so he'll be making $12 million this year and $13.5 million next year if the Cubs and Wood both pick up the option. The Cubs' option is a $3 million buyout, so its really only $10.5 million more that we're already slated to spend in order to keep him. Taking the average size of his contract, its in line with what the top tier of free agent closers will be making the next few years. Taking the contract year by year, this is the only season Wood will be overpaid, if he performs at the same level as Wagner and Ryan.
If Wood can pitch like he did in his short stint as a reliever last season, then he will produce at a level similar to Ryan and Wagner. Out of the pen, Wood posted a 2.25 ERA, with a 0.75 WHIP, 3.4 K/BB, and 12.75 K/9. Those stats are from a very small sample size, but if he pitch at anything near those levels, he very well might be worth his current contract - even as a closer. Combine that with his young age - Wood is, believe it or not, younger than all the closers mentioned in this article - and you have someone you actually might consider signing to an extension to be your closer for the next few years, even if he demands a contract that pays him similarly to his current one. There are two main problems with making Wood the closer:
- In addition to slightly overpaying Wood, we'd also be slightly overpaying Ryan Dempster to be a middle reliever/setup man at an average of $5 million per year, and would be sightly overpaying Eyre and Howry to be the 3rd and 4th guys out of the pen. We could move one of these 3, however, to alleviate this situation, or could just eat the contracts and have a dominating bullpen.
- We would need to replace Wood in the rotation. Given that Rusch is better as a starter and Williams had great peripherals last season, i'd be comfortable with these 2 in there. We could also consider trading for Barry Zito and having only Rush OR Williams in the rotation.
Zambrano, Zito, Prior, Maddux, Williams
Wood, Dempster, Howry, Eyre, Rusch, Ohman, Novoa (i assume Hill + Wuertz would go to the A's in the Zito deal)
I do realize that this is all contingent on Wood being able to produce like he did when he came out of the pen last season. However, i think that's a smaller "?" than his arm trouble would be if he went back to starting.