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May 2, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Kerry Wood

by Joe Sheehan

Tonight, Kerry Wood will make his first major-league appearance since Game 3 of the 1998 National League Division Series. Coincidentally, he will face the Houston Astros, the team that helped vault him to prominence by striking out 20 times against him on May 6, 1998. The start will cap a comeback from Tommy John surgery just 13 months after the reconstruction of his elbow.

The start means a lot of things to a lot of people. Most importantly, it's a milestone in the life of a 22-year-old man who has already been through a lot in his brief career. Whatever the merits of the decision to accelerate his rehabilitation, it's impossible to not root for Wood, who was a big part of baseball's Summer of 1998. He has worked very hard to get back to this point, and any reservations I have about his readiness are more than superseded by my desire to see him succeed.

Tonight's game will mean something to the Cubs, albeit less than they perceive. Even with Wood replacing Kyle Farnsworth in the rotation, this is a bad baseball team. Wood isn't going to make the Cubs a factor in the NL Central unless he's going to be the setup man on the days he isn't starting. A successful Wood comeback, however, will put them in position to set up their rotation for 2001, when they could potentially win 90 games.

From my standpoint, I sincerely hope the Cubs treat Wood in the same manner that the Florida Marlins treated Alex Fernandez last year. Like Wood, Fernandez underwent surgery--in his case, shoulder surgery--that cost him a season. The Marlins, like the Cubs, had no hope of contending, and handled Fernandez with great care, holding him to strict pitch limits and shutting him down with about three weeks left in 1999. That kind of TLC enabled Fernandez to use last year as an extension of his rehabilitation, with an eye towards being 100% in 2000. That's the view the Cubs have to take: 2000 is practice for 2001. That's a hard message to sell to fans, the media and to Wood himself, but it is the only one that matters.

The Cubs were careful with Wood in 1998...until the race heated up. Wood threw a lot of pitches in August of that year, and missed much of September as a result. It is imperative that they, having already put him at risk once, take a longer view this time. Wood, like Philadelphia's Curt Schilling, is a big guy who wants to be the ace of his staff, and doesn't particularly want to be reined in. Don Baylor's single biggest task for the remainder of 2000 is to curb those impulses and do what's best for Kerry Wood, and for the Cubs, in the long term.

For Wood, for the Cubs and for baseball fans everywhere, I hope he can see it through.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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