Just coincidentally -- really, since this happened before Theo & Co. decided to place Mike Olt on the disabled list and call up Kris Bryant for Friday's game at Wrigley Field -- Bruce Miles of the Daily Herald wrote this article Thursday about the similar just-late-enough-for-more-team-control recall of another hot prospect 17 years ago.
That, of course, was 20-year-old Kerry Wood. Of whom it was said by then-Angels manager Terry Collins during spring training 1998 when Wood was sent down: "If the Cubs have five starters better than Kerry Wood, they're going to win the World Series."
Wood was hyped nearly as much as Bryant has been. Drafted in 1995 out of high school, Wood had a good 1996 in High-A at Daytona (10-2, 2.91 ERA, 136 strikeouts in 114⅓ innings) but didn't do nearly as well in 1997, split between Double-A and Triple-A (10-9, 4.57 ERA, 186 strikeouts in 151⅔ innings, but also 131 walks). He was the No. 3 overall prospect before the 1997 season and No. 4 overall in 1998.
Wood was sent back to Triple-A to start the 1998 season. He made one start there and allowed one hit in five innings with 11 strikeouts. But it wasn't that performance that brought his callup -- the reason was exactly the same as what happened this year, an injury. As noted in Bruce Miles' article, Bob Patterson, a lefthanded reliever, was injured April 9 and Terry Mulholland, who had started the year in the rotation, was moved to the pen (as he'd do often that year).
Here's one difference between 1998 and now: Wood was summoned not to Wrigley Field to make his debut, but to Montreal for a start April 12, far off baseball's beaten path. The Expos had dismantled their great 1994 team and the 1998 version would wind up losing 95 games. Here's the boxscore from Wood's debut, in which he was lifted with two out in the fifth. He allowed four hits and four earned runs, walked three, struck out seven and hit a batter, in front of a mid-size crowd of 18,506.
Not so special, unfortunately. And even though his Wrigley debut six days later against the Dodgers was much better -- five shutout innings -- he was still struggling with command, issuing three walks and throwing 102 pitches.
His next start, April 24 in Los Angeles, was a disaster. He didn't make it out of the second inning and at one point issued four straight walks (in an inning in which he hit a batter and also balked). That was followed by a grand slam by Mike Piazza, upon which Jim Riggleman had mercy on him and pulled him. It was one of only three starts in Wood's career (out of 178 total starts) in which he threw fewer than two innings.
He righted the ship at Wrigley April 30 against the Cardinals, throwing seven strong innings, allowing just five hits and two walks while striking out nine.
That set the stage for start number five, the famous 20-K game, the one that brought him to national prominence. Wood later said he was most proud in that game of the fact that he didn't walk anyone. But entering that game Wood had a 5.89 ERA and 1.472 WHIP, although also with 25 strikeouts in 18⅓ innings.
Everyone knew Wood had talent; no one knew he would throw what is arguably the most dominant game in major-league history in just his fifth big-league start. You know the rest -- he went on to be named N.L. Rookie of the Year and his performance helped lead the Cubs to the playoffs.
What does all this have to do with Kris Bryant, I'm sure you're asking.
Well, all the hype probably has you thinking he's going to hit six home runs in his first game while rainbows fly out of his uniform. That isn't going to happen. And he's going to be facing one of the game's best pitchers in James Shields. I'm not telling you to not be excited about Bryant's debut -- certainly, it's something to be excited about -- but if he goes 0-for-4, that shouldn't surprise you.
Because what's important about Bryant's debut isn't Friday's game, but all the games between now and the end of the 2021 season, the earliest he can become a free agent. Theo & Co. took the long view here and I think we should, too, as fans. Sure, it'd be great if Bryant has a spectacular debut, like Starlin Castro did in 2010 or like Javier Baez did last summer.
If he doesn't? Don't panic. We've got seven years, at least, to enjoy his talents on the North Side.