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Tribe looks to Wood to strengthen 'pen

Tribe looks to Wood to strengthen 'pen

CLEVELAND -- In a deep closer's market, the Indians put Kerry Wood at the top of their wish list -- ahead of Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes and a host of others.

What the Tribe saw in Wood was a player who not only fit their need for a prototypical hard-throwing closer but also fit their clubhouse culture and quest for leadership.

"We get the best of both worlds with Kerry," general manager Mark Shapiro said.

And the Indians officially got him Saturday.

On Friday, Cleveland received the results of the physical Wood took here, and on Saturday the Indians announced that they had signed the right-handed Wood to a two-year contract worth $20.5 million. The contract includes an option for 2011 worth $11 million that vests if Wood finishes 55 games in either '09 or '10. Otherwise, it is a club option.

Signing Wood allows the Indians to push youngster Jensen Lewis, who saved 13 games down the stretch last season, into more of a setup role. Left-hander Rafael Perez is a lock for the eighth inning, and Lewis, Rafael Betancourt, newly acquired Joe Smith will vie for opportunities in the back end of what Cleveland hopes will be a much-improved 'pen.

Wood and the Indians were close to an agreement on Tuesday at the Winter Meetings, but Wood, who has been on the disabled list 12 times in 10 seasons and has had two major surgeries, first had to pass a diligent physical. The Indians also pored through his medical records.

"With what I've gone through and where I've come from and the way I threw the ball [last season], there was no doubt in my mind [a deal would get done]," Wood said. "My only concern was that they'd need a dolly or two to get [the medical report] over to them. It's pretty thick."

So, too, is Wood's résumé as a dominant arm, when healthy. He brings to the Indians a ninth-inning makeup not seen here since the days of Jose Mesa.


"They came at me hard from Day 1. That was something I looked at. I looked at the records of the teams, and they had one of the best records in the second half. The talent is there, and it's a great city and town with solid fans and a beautiful stadium."
-- Kerry Wood

"We've had some guys who have been unconventional, but still effective," Shapiro said. "What Kerry does is give us that prototypical closer, as well as the temperament that Joe Borowski and Bob Wickman brought."

Still, the job is relatively new to Wood. He moved to a relief role with the Cubs in '07, and last season, when he saved 34 of 40 opportunities for the National League Central division champs, was his first as a closer.

But the 31-year-old Wood said he took a liking to the job.

"I could come in and let it go," he said. "The thing I impressed myself with was the walks and command. My command was a lot better coming in for a short time."

The numbers bear that out, as Wood struck out 84 batters and walked just 18 in 66 1/3 innings over 65 appearances last season. In all, he went 5-4 with a 3.26 ERA, and his 34 saves ranked fourth in the NL.

As good as the numbers looked, Wood also liked the way his arm felt.

"I've talked to relievers who said they felt better the morning after they throw," Wood said, "and I could never understand that, as a starter. Because it would take me every bit of four days to be able to [throw] again. After making the transition and coming out of the bullpen, I saw there's a lot of validity to it. The more I threw, the better I felt and the better I did."

Wood worked three straight days three times in '08, and he worked four straight days once. He did, however, go on the 15-day disabled list -- but that was with a blister, not an arm injury.

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Of course, in previous years, arm injuries were too often par for the course for Wood.

Wood, an Irving, Texas, native, captured the attention of baseball fans when, at 20 years old, he struck out 20 Astros batters in just his fifth Major League start. He struck out more than 200 batters in four seasons from 1998-2003, including an NL-leading 266 in '03.

But Wood had Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in 1999 and missed the entire season. In 2004, he strained his triceps and missed two months. And in 2005, he underwent shoulder surgery that limited him to just four starts the following season.

The move to the bullpen in '07 resurrected his career. Wood went 1-1 with a 3.33 ERA in 22 relief appearances down the stretch, helping the Cubs clinch a playoff berth. In Spring Training of '08, he beat out Carlos Marmol and Bob Howry for the Cubs' ninth-inning job, and he went on to become an NL All-Star.

With Marmol ready to assume the closer's job, the Cubs went in a different direction this offseason. They acquired Kevin Gregg from the Marlins as a setup man to Marmol, essentially marking the end of Wood's tenure with the Cubs, which had begun when they took him with the fourth overall pick in the 1995 First-Year Player Draft.

Wood had inquired about the possibility of a one-year contract with the Cubs, but it was not to be.

"I kinda asked my agent to see what was going on and if that was possibly in the cards," he said. "With where they were, not having an owner and [having] some back-loaded contracts, that was not part of the equation for them."

One underrated benefit to signing Wood is that the Indians don't have to give up a Draft pick to do so. Fearing Wood, who was a Type A free agent, would accept a one-year contract at a salary determined by an arbitrator, the Cubs did not offer him arbitration, thereby forfeiting their right to Draft-pick compensation.

The cuffs loosened on the closer's market when Rodriguez signed a three-year, $37 million deal with the Mets, and the Indians made a hard push for Wood at the Winter Meetings.

When it came to wooing Wood, the Indians had the benefit of special assistant to baseball operations Jason Bere, who is one of Wood's closest friends. They also had the added bonus of opening a new Spring Training facility in Goodyear, Ariz., which is not far from Wood's Scottsdale home.

"It worked out well that Cleveland is moving this year to Arizona, and obviously they're going to have a beautiful new facility," Wood said. "It was not really a factor [in signing]. It was more of a bonus when you signed."

News of Wood's impending signing generated a buzz among Indians fans this week, because Wood is easily the club's highest-profile free-agent signing in the Shapiro era.

"They came at me hard from Day 1," Wood said. "That was something I looked at. I looked at the records of the teams, and they had one of the best records in the second half. The talent is there, and it's a great city and town with solid fans and a beautiful stadium."

And, finally, a town with a closer.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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