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Prospect Retrospective: Kerry Wood

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Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile: Kerry Wood

I'm old enough to remember when Kerry Wood was a young phenom instead of a grizzled veteran. Let's take a trip in the Wayback Machine and see how Wood was viewed as a prospect.

Kerry Wood was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the first round of the 1995 draft, from high school in Grand Prairie, Texas. One of the best high school pitchers of his generation, he drew comparisons to fireballers like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens. Drafted fourth overall, he didn't sign right away and pitched some games for his high school team after the draft, including a 200-pitch outing in a double-header. He walked six hitters in his first seven professional innings, but his mid-90s fastball and unhittable curve pushed him up the prospect lists quickly,

Wood pitched for High-A Daytona in 1996, as a 19-year-old against older competition in the Florida State League. He went 10-2, 2.91 ERA with a 136/70 K/BB ratio in 114 innings, allowing just 72 hits. He also spent a month on the disabled list with a sore elbow, and there was grumbling that he was already paying the price for pitching too much in high school. I had him as a Grade A- and the number two pitching prospect in the minors.

In my comment for Wood in the 1997 book, I wrote

"Scouts are always on the lookout for Texas high school pitchers, hoping for the next Nolan Ryan. They haven't found him. Between 1980 and 1990, nine Texas high school pitchers were drafted in the first round. None of them, that's right, none of them, developed into decent major league pitches. Here's the list: Rickey Barlow, Jimmy Jones, Jackie Davidson, Wayne Dotson, Scott Scudder, Brian Bohanon, Todd Ritchie, Todd Van Poppel, and Robbie Beckett. . .Wood could be the next Nolan Ryan, but he could also blow his arm out."

The Cubs sent Wood to Double-A Orlando to open 1997. He had serious control problems, posting a 4.50 ERA with a 106/79 K/BB in 94 innings, but they moved him up to Triple-A anyway, where he posted a 4.68 ERA with an 80/52 K/BB in 58 innings for Iowa. He made 29 starts and threw 158 innings, fanning 186 but walking 121. This struck me as a very aggressive and unwise workload. I gave him a Grade A- in my 1998 book, noting his amazing stuff and his strong K/IP ratios, but with some caveats:

"The Cubs took a big risk by promoting him to Triple-A. His control was bad in Double-A and I don't understand what Triple-A hitters could teach him about control that Double-A hitters couldn't. I can't shake the feeling that he is going to get hurt. He was overused in high school, and has already had elbow trouble in the pros. He was healthy last year, but while his mechanics look smooth from behind home plate, if you watch him from the first base side, it looks like his motion puts strain on the elbow. Don't get me wrong, this guy is a gem. I don't doubt his ability, but I wonder if he is being handled correctly, and if he will stay healthy."

Kerry made one start in Triple-A in 1998 (fanning 11 in five innings), and spent the rest of the year with the cubs, going 13-6, 3.40 ERA, with a 233/85 K/BB in 167 innings with just 117 hits allowed. His 20-strikeout game in his fifth major league start was phenomenal and possibly the best single-game pitching performance in major league history.

You know the rest of Wood's story: at his best he was very much like Ryan and Clemens, but he just couldn't stay healthy. He wasn't quite the same after 1998 Tommy John surgery, and eventually his shoulder proved troublesome as well. He had a brief career revival as a closer, and it is fitting that he ended his career as a Cub after brief diversions with the Indians and Yankees.

All told, Wood finished with an 86-75 (.534) record, a 3.67 ERA, 1582/666 K/BB ratio in 1380 innings, just 1083 hits allowed, and a 117 ERA+, with a 23.4 WAR.