COLUMN: Cubs’ potential threatened by injuries

By ME Online

It was a cold, blustery day on May 6, 1998. 20-year-old right-hander Kerry Wood was set to take the mound for the Chicago Cubs against the Houston Astros. What took place next, Sports Illustrated called “perhaps the most dominant pitching performance in baseball history.”

Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros in that game, and struck out 13 the next game, breaking the record for most strikeouts in two consecutive games.

Kid K came into the league in a blaze of glory, dominating hitters and dropping the jaws of Cub fans nationwide with his 100 mph fastball and his 12-6 curveball, all as a 20-year-old. The stars had aligned to give us this Texas gunslinger in the mold of other Lone Star State studs like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens.

Then in the last month of his rookie season, he hurt his elbow and sat out the entire month. He still managed to win rookie of the year that year, but it was the start of a series of injuries that has completely derailed his career.

Kid K’s arm is special but it’s also his Achilles heel, as it has kept him injured for parts or all of six of his eight seasons with the Cubs. So when I heard the news that the Cubs had resigned him to a one-year deal, I didn’t know whether to be happy or mad.

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As a Cub fan, you know there is a great chance of Wood leaving the Cubs for another team, discovering a super bionic potion that makes his arm not only better than it ever was, but also indestructible and then watching him pitch his way into the Hall of Fame.

On the other side, is it worth it to give this guy more money than we already have, just to see him get hurt and earn his paycheck from his living room couch? Don’t get me wrong, Wood is great when he’s healthy. In the 2003 divisional playoff series, Wood dominated the Braves in games 1 and 5, carrying the Cubs to their first playoff series victory in many Cubs’ fans lifetimes.

He was rewarded with a fat new contract extension after that season, and his arm promptly decided to take a vacation. Wood has only started 36 games in the three years since. Of course, his travails don’t receive all the attention, because he has a partner in crime, Mark Prior, who is quickly becoming the second coming of well, Kerry Wood.

Prior’s meteoric rise to the major leagues was even faster than Wood’s, as he was brought up midway into 2002, the same year he was drafted. The next year, in 2003, Prior was un-hittable, finishing 18-6 with a 2.46 ERA. Then like clockwork, the injuries set in, and Prior has gone 18-17 in the three seasons since.

The starting pitching in baseball is horrendous right now, as you see perennial scrubs like Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver winning World Series games. The Mets were one win shy of reaching the World Series with only one viable starting pitcher, 43-year-old Tom Glavine, who is ten years past his prime.

It is why 85-year-old Roger Clemens can take three months off, decide to start pitching after the All-Star break and still demand and receive $12 million.

It is why teams right now are willing to pay $20 million just to have the right to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka and his infamous gyro ball.

What makes it worse is that the Cubs actually have two stallions, but they are stuck in the stable like Barbaro.

Prior and Wood, along with ace Carlos Zambrano, would give the Cubs the best starting rotation in the National League, and winning the division title would be a cake walk.

But Wood is going to come back next year as a reliever to ease the workload on his shoulder; a big concession for a proud man like him, but it is the best thing to do. John Smoltz, who like Wood, went through a lot of arm trouble, became a closer, had three great seasons, and now he is a starter again pitching without pain.

Or Wood could end up like Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who was a starter for the first half of his career, and then excelled as a reliever for the second half. Whatever happens, he has to stay healthy to succeed. If he does, then he could finally fulfill some of that promise he showed on that one May night.

Majesh Abraham is a junior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected].