As reliever Kerry Wood worked his way back towards the big leagues during a minor league rehab assignment in July, he realized that he was likely spending his final days in the Cleveland Indians organization. It was late-July, and Wood was frustrated to be on the disabled list for the 14th time in his career and second for a blister on his right index finger. ("I've heard them all, and I've used them all," Wood said of the suggestions he received about curing the issue. "There's no more left.")
But there was light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The Indians, with whom he'd signed a two-year, $20 million deal to close prior to the 2009 season, had sunk to last place. But Cleveland's need to focus on the future meant that Wood would likely have an opportunity to escape the cellar and join a team in the thick of the pennant race.
In the days leading up to the July 31 trade deadline, Wood believed there was a good possibility of a deal. But he did not anticipate that he would end up with a Yankees team that ultimately acquired his services. Instead, the 33-year-old (who was 1-4 with a 6.30 ERA for the Indians in 23 appearances that were squeezed between two trips to the disabled list) thought that he was Boston-bound.
Back with the Indians in Toronto on July 31 and awaiting his activation from the disabled list, Wood received a surprise message.
"I actually thought [Boston] was where I was going. When they sat me down in Toronto, I thought that’s the only team I’d heard anything about [their interest], was the Red Sox," Wood recalled earlier this month. "I hadn’t heard anything about the Yankees. So for a couple of days, I thought it was the Red Sox, then they sat me down and told me Yankees after the game. I was pleasantly surprised."
The Indians, according to one source familiar with the deadline decision, essentially conducted a last-minute auction for Wood to see what team would assume the largest amount of the remainder of his salary. The Sox had scouted Wood's minor league rehab assignment -- a scoreless inning for Double-A Akron on July 29 -- and felt that he could help them in the bullpen.
But while the Sox were willing to pick up a chunk of the roughly $3.7 million remaining on Wood's deal, the Yankees were willing to dig deeper into their pockets. New York committed to assume at least $1.5 million of Wood's salary, and an additional $500,000 if Wood remained heavy. Considering that the Yankees would also have to pay a 40 percent luxury tax assessment on that amount (compared to a 22.5 percent payment that the Sox would have had to pay), it was a sizable payout for a player who was likely to pitch roughly 25 regular season innings.
Side note: The Yankees will end up spending less on Wood than the Sox spent to pluck reliever Billy Wagner off of waivers -- to throw just 13 2/3 innings -- from the Mets in Aug. 2009, and so it is fair to ask why the Sox were more tight-fisted this time around, particularly given that the Sox' need for bullpen help was far greater at the 2010 trade deadline than it was at the time of the Wagner acquisition. A few differences:
--Wagner is one of the best relievers of all-time, and the Sox had a larger scouting sample with Wagner (two appearances in the majors, seven in the minors prior to acquiring him) than had been available with Wood. Wood's 6.30 ERA in the majors when healthy in 2010 suggested greater uncertainty.
--Wagner was a near-lock for Type A free-agent status, something that would net the Sox two draft picks (one as high as the first round, another in the sandwich round) if they offered the left-hander arbitration and he declined. Wood, meanwhile, seems more likely to end up as a Type B free agent, according to the projections of MLBTradeRumors.com. That would be worth no more than a sandwich pick. Moreover, Wood might represent a riskier player for an arbitration offer, since he might accept a process that gives him significantly more than what he might make as a free agent.
--Finally, the Sox would pay a 22.5 percent luxury tax on Wood; in 2009, they were below the CBT threshold, so there was no additional payout on Wagner.
--All of that said, had the Sox matched the Yankees' willingness to spend up to $2 million on Wood, they would have spent roughly $1 million less than what they spent on Wagner, and they would have gotten twice the number of innings.
It was the first time that Wood had ever been traded in his career. Still, his concern was less with how he might be able to adapt to a new team than it was to how long it would take him to perform to his abilities.
"I hadn’t been traded before, but my main concern was, coming off the D.L., I hadn’t thrown a pitch yet [in the majors]. [Being traded] wasn’t a concern. Hopefully it wasn’t going to take me 10 days, two weeks to knock the rust off," said Wood. "It didn’t."
Indeed. Wood quickly emerged as the Yankees' primary setup man for closer Mariano Rivera, becoming an overpowering presence out of the New York bullpen. Despite struggles with his command (18 walks), he allowed just two runs and 14 hits in 24 appearances (26 innings), forging a 0.69 ERA and solidifying the Yankees' March to Mo.
He has remained a key contributor for the Yankees during the postseason, a notion made strikingly evident on Wednesday, when he tossed two shutout innings and struck out three in New York's 7-2 win over the Rangers.
"I felt that he would pitch good, but I don't think anyone, you know, ever says when you're going to get a reliever, that for two months, he's going to have an ERA under 1.00. Some of the best relievers of all time don't do that. So I don't think that you can imagine that he's going to be that good, but I thought they would help us a lot," Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters on Wednesday. "It’s been a great couple months."
While Wood impacted the Yankees significantly, the Sox never found a comparable bullpen addition down the stretch. And so, it is easy to suggest that the right-hander helped to determine the balance of power in the playoff chase, helping to propel the Yankees to the wild card and leaving the Sox to spend the winter at home.
Yet such a conclusion seems a bit far-fetched. After all, the Yankees led the Sox by 7 1/2 games at the end of play on July 31. Over the rest of the season, the Sox were actually 1 1/2 games better than New York. It is virtually impossible that one reliever -- who worked 26 innings -- could have represented a six-game difference in the performance of the clubs, a fact that Wood acknowledged.
"I don’t think I did [play a pivotal role between the Sox and Yankees]," said Wood. "That’s the way trades go. somebody’s going to get somebody, and the other team is not going to get him. I don’t know if that makes or breaks a team."
That said, Wood's dominant performance down the stretch will make him an interesting pitcher to monitor heading into the offseason. From 2008 through the first part of this year, he had been a closer -- a role in which clubs with an established closer (such as the Sox, thanks to the presence of Jonathan Papelbon and closer-in-waiting Daniel Bard) would have no real need for him.
But with the Yankees, he has shown an ability to serve as a dominant setup man. If he is willing to be flexible, and to choose a destination this offseason (when he will once again be a free agent, assuming the Yankees do not pick up his $11 million option) regardless of whether he would close or set up, then it could result in more teams being interested in his services.
For now, however, Wood is not contemplating the offseason market for his services.
"My only focus is putting up a zero the next time the phone rings with my name," said Wood. "I haven’t thought about the offseason. I haven’t thought about tomorrow. I haven’t thought about anything but what I have to do today."
For Wood and a Yankees team that he did not imagine pitching for, that has been more than enough.