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For starters, Travis Wood shows big value in Cubs’ bullpen

Travis Wood pitching in the Cubs' spring training opener Thursday.

MARYVALE, Ariz. – Travis Wood has seen it all when it comes to the Cubs’ organizational overhaul under team president Theo Epstein.

He was acquired in Epstein’s second trade with the Cubs – a week before the Anthony Rizzo trade – before the 2012 season. And he’s now the longest tenured player in the Cubs’ clubhouse, having made his Cubs debut more than a month before Rizzo that year.

“It’s definitely been something to see over the years, especially when you look back and see how many players we ran through in those first couple of years,” said Wood, who started the Cubs’ spring training opener Thursday, a 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. “And now to have a pretty solid team is nice.”

Wood’s career has undergone almost as many changes in that span, bringing him to what might be the biggest crossroads year of his career – playing a significant role for a World Series favorite in his final season before free agency.

“I think he’s going to get better,” said manager Joe Maddon, who moved Wood from the rotation to the bullpen last May and wound up with one of his most valuable relievers during the Cubs’ first playoff season in seven years. “Because he has a better understanding of what’s going on. He’s a better pitcher. He knows himself better.”

Not that anybody knows where Wood will be this time next year or in what role.

And not that even Wood was certain he’d be back this season.

The left-hander who made the All-Star team during a 200-inning season as a starter in 2013 was paid in the arbitration process as a starter heading into last season ($5.69 million). With as much as the Cubs planned to address this past offseason, and with the budget initially falling short of some of the plans, Wood, as a reliever, figured to be a potential trade or non-tender candidate.

“It could have went either way,” said Wood, whose value was rewarded with a commitment for 2016 and a $6.17-million deal. “Just the fact that I’m here on this team, I’m giving it everything I can.”

Wood, 29, might have more value for this team than most in the role he’ll probably carry from last year into this one. He’s one of four ex-starting pitchers likely to be in a seven- or eight-man pen, including two former All-Star starters (also Trevor Cahill).

“It’s an unusual group in the positive way possible, with the variety of multiple-inning guys that are also capable of closing games if you wanted them to and could also start games if you wanted them to,” Maddon said.

Perhaps none has proved more versatile than Wood, who earned a save in his first appearance out of the bullpen, made two spot starts in September and wound up with a 2.95 ERA and 11 strikeouts per nine innings in 45 relief appearances overall.

“If that’s my role going in, I’ll try to do as best I can,” said Wood, who gave up a run Thursday in a clean two innings after a leadoff triple in the first. “I’ll try to take it whenever they need me and come out and give them everything I’ve got.”

But it’s also no secret he wants the chance to start more games this year. “I hope so,” he said, adding that his preparation for the season is based on that mindset. “But then again we’ll see where it takes us.”

In that 2013 season, he had a 3.11 ERA and 24 quality starts. In the National League, only Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright and Cole Hamels had more that year.

Does he still consider himself a starter as he looks long-term at his career?

“In my mind, yes,” he said, before repeating what appears to be his mantra this year. “But really wherever they put me I’m going to take the ball and give you everything I’ve got.”

All Maddon knows is, “I’m very excited to have him back.

“I’m certain there’s a part of him that wants to be a starter even if he’s not going to concede it or say it loudly,” the manager added. “But he also understands what a great job he did last year in the longevity [he provided] in the game. He knows how much I appreciate what he does and how he does it.”