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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superseded by my desire to see him succeed.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.

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