For most of the offseason it has been assumed Travis Wood would move on from Chicago as a free agent. But that was before sought-after starter Tyson Ross opted to sign with the Texas Rangers over the Cubs. In the time since, rumors linking Wood back to the North Side have been growing. Some have even suggested that the part-time left fielder could be the sixth man in the rotation.
I’d like to make the case for Woody to come back to Chicago, just not as a starter.
Wood came to the Cubs from Cincinnati in exchange for Sean Marshall in 2012. The slugging pitcher was used exclusively as a starter over his first three seasons in Chicago, during which he was inconsistent to say the least. The 2012 and 2014 campaigns — more on that here — were struggles, with FIP marks well above 4.00. In between those two mediocre seasons came an excellent first half performance in 2013 that earned Wood an All-Star bid.
He flailed about in nine starts to open the 2015 season, the last three of which saw him allow 15 runs. When the Arkansas native was demoted to the pen after that rough run, however, his numbers improved drastically. Among other stats, his batting average against dropped from .258 as a starter to .207 as reliever.
As a full-time member of the pen in 2016, Wood mostly abandoned his secondary pitches in favor of the four-seam fastball and cutter. This reduced repertoire was especially effective against left-handed batters, who hit a microscopic .128 against him. By the end of the season, Wood was one of the few relievers Joe Maddon could consistently rely on.
The Cubs appear to be looking to add one more pitcher to their staff for 2017, likely as a long reliever/swing starter type. Some are looking hard at Brett Anderson to be the sixth man in the Chicago rotation. Anderson undoubtedly has better numbers than Wood as a starter, but durability is a major concern. The Dodger lefty has pitched fewer than 50 innings in four of his last five major league seasons, including just 11.1 last year.
Travis Wood coming back to Chicago as a reliever is more valuable than a starter like Anderson, for several reasons. Wood is one of the most durable pitchers in baseball, having never missed significant time as big leaguer due to injury. The Cubs’ rotation was extraordinarily healthy last season, but they can’t expect more of the same in 2017. We know what Wood brings out of the pen, and he could fill in as a starter should his services be required.
One could imagine Maddon giving the southpaw an occasional start to give the standard rotation a little rest as well. A full-season six-man rotation seems like it could create more problems than it solves. Jon Lester and John Lackey might — let’s be honest Lackey certainly will — bristle at having their workloads reduced so drastically. And you know a guy like Arrieta isn’t going to want to see his numbers dip in a contract year.
Adding to that flexibility is Woody’s prowess with the bat, a facet of his game that allowed Maddon to save an early pinch hitter by letting his reliever hit for himself. The mad(don) scientist was even able to shuffle the athletic Wood between the outfield and the mound to get the proper matchups at the plate. Just to prove it wasn’t all for show, he crashed into the ivy to catch a potential double against the Mariners.
Perhaps no game proved Wood’s value to the Cubs more than Game 2 of the NLDS. Chicago starter Kyle Hendricks was forced out of the game after taking a line drive to the forearm in the 4th inning. Wood got the last out of the frame, hit a home run in the bottom of the inning, and posted a scoreless 5th to effectively ice the game. Having such a useful player on the roster can make all the difference over the course of a long season.