Kerry Wood takes over the closer role for the Indians, a team that finished with an AL-low 31 saves last season. Wood had 34 saves for the Cubs in 2008.
Paul Connors / AP Enlarge
GOODYEAR, Ariz. - During their search for a closer, the Cleveland Indians analyzed phone book-thick volumes of statistical analysis on pitchers of varying shapes and sizes. They dissected resumes, poured over pitching charts, examined medical reports, and scrutinized ERAs, walks-per-inning ratios, and more.
For manager Eric Wedge, there are only a few traits worth considering.
"Thick skin and broad shoulders," he said. "An aura."
Kerry Wood has them all.
Signed to a two-year, $20.5 million contract in December, Wood, who spent 14 years in the Chicago Cubs' organization, has made a seamless transition to the Indians, who were desperate to find someone to get the final three outs after finishing with the fewest saves (31) in the AL last season.
"Kerry has fit right in," said Wedge. "Without a doubt, he's a leadership personality. He has a strong persona. He carries himself with a great deal of confidence. You can tell those people who are comfortable in their own skin. Along with that comes presence. You love that with anybody, but particularly in the back end of your bullpen."
Wood is already making his mark with the Indians.
With his blue Indians cap turned backward, the 31-year-old clutched a coffee cup in his right hand as he strolled through Cleveland's clubhouse yesterday morning. As he walked by, several minor leaguers turned their heads and watched as the imposing 6-foot-5 flame-thrower headed toward the door.
This is a man who demands attention.
Wood was just 20 when he struck out 20 Houston Astros in his fifth major league start, a once-in-a-generation performance that helped earn him NL rookie of the year honors in 1998. But as quickly as his star rose, it faded.
He underwent Tommy John surgery and missed all of 1999. Wood won 38 games from 2001-03, but he was always battling shoulder and arm injuries and made 12 trips to the disabled list in 11 seasons.
His baseball life at a crossroads, the Cubs moved him into the bullpen late in 2007.
"I had conceded the fact that I wouldn't be starting anymore and told the Cubs, 'Listen, this is something I can handle, you're not going to get 200 innings out of me anymore,'•" Wood recalled. "I didn't think my body could handle that workload. I looked at it as something that could revive my career and keep me in the game a little longer.
"And on top of all of that, it's pretty fun coming in late in the game."
On the mound in the ninth, with the pressure bubbling, Wood was as cool as ever. A natural.
He finished with 34 saves, made the all-star team, and helped the Cubs make the playoffs.
Third baseman Mark DeRosa witnessed every step of Wood's starter-to-closer transformation. His teammate for two seasons in Chicago, DeRosa was acquired by the Indians less than three weeks after Wood signed.
"It kind of freed him up. I don't know if he'll tell you the same or not," DeRosa said. "But he battled so hard from the injuries and the fans always understood how much he cared about the organization and the team and they were really behind him. So to see him come in and close games and see the emotion and how the stadium took on a life of its own when he would come in the games was pretty special."
In the early stages of his makeover, Wood was urged to speak with other pitchers like John Smoltz, who made the rotation-to-bullpen move in Atlanta. Wood, though, figured he'd cut his own path.
"I didn't really want to take a bunch of information from a lot of different people," he said. "I wanted to keep it as simple as I could: get warmed up, get in the game, and get three outs.
"So far it has worked pretty well for me."
Wedge and his coaching staff have been impressed with everything about Wood, whose bullpen sessions have been a must-see event during the Indians' first week at their new player development complex.
"You watch him throw a bullpen, and he looks pretty good right now," Wedge said. "But we want him ready for April 6, not March 6."
Wood doesn't do half-speed at anything. Once the baseball is in his hand, Wood wants to hit the nearest target with a fastball that can still consistently top 95 mph.
"It's hard for me to throttle it down and be effective," he said. "To go out there and try to throw a bullpen at 70 percent, I don't pitch at 70 percent. There's times where I'll get frustrated and kick it back up and make sure I can continue to throw strikes."
As they were sizing up the free-agent field of closers, the Indians were struck by one of Wood's stats. When he had two strikes on a hitter last season, they batted just .107 (16-of-150) against him.
"Sticks out, doesn't it?" Wedge said. "When a pitcher is doing what Kerry did last year, he's not only closing out at-bats, he's closing out the inning."
The Indians spent nearly all of last season trying to find a closer - with mixed results. Joe Borowski, who saved a league-high 45 games in 2007, was a disaster from the start and was released in July. The club then tried out several others before Jensen Lewis took over closing duties in August and went 13-for-13 the rest of the way.
Wood doesn't want to be seen as a savior.
"I'm looking at it as I'm
another piece of the puzzle to help this team win," he said. "I think we all have to keep that attitude. If everyone does their job, we're going to be great. There's enough pressure in this game, especially at that [closer] position, that you can't put anymore on yourself."
Wood isn't showing signs of Wrigley Field withdrawal, but he knows it's coming. Chicago was his baseball home for almost half his life. When he signed with Cleveland, Wood took out a full-page ad in the city's two major newspapers to thank Cubs fans for their support.
"I had a great run and a great 10 years there," he said. "I enjoyed every minute of it, even the bad stuff. It's a great town, but it's time for me to move to another great town."
The Indians acquired reliever Juan Salas yesterday in a trade with Tampa Bay and designated disappointing third baseman Andy Marte for assignment.
The Indians sent minor league infielder Isaias Velasquez to Tampa for Salas, a right-hander who made five appearances for the Rays in 2008. The 30-year-old had a 7.11 ERA in five games over two stints with the Rays. He went 4-5 with a 2.62 ERA and one save in 28 games for Triple-A Durham.
Velasquez batted .281 with one homer and 18 RBIs for the Indians' Mahoning Valley (Class A) affiliate last season.
To make room for Salas, the Indians designated Marte, who has not fulfilled expectations since arriving from Boston in a 2006 trade. He batted .221 in 80 games last season and has hit only .219 with the Indians.