Cleveland has taken a risk by signing Kerry Wood to a two-year, $20.5 million contract. But if he stays healthy, the Indians will have acquired the best closer on the market at a discount to the going rate set by Francisco Rodriguez and the Mets.
Cleveland's 2008 season turned sour for a number of reasons, and a bad bullpen was one of them. The Indians underperformed in their runs scored and runs allowed totals by four to five wins and were particularly bad in close games, going 43-52 in games decided by three runs or fewer. Only one Indians reliever ranked in the top 50 in baseball in expected wins added, which measures a reliever's performance while taking into account the situation (score, inning, men on base, number of outs) the reliever inherits.
Cleveland's Opening Day closer, Joe Borowski, posted a 7.56 ERA in 16 2/3 innings before he was released. Its best set-up man from 2007, Rafael Betancourt, took a major step back and became wilder and more homer-prone. After allowing three runs on Aug. 5, Betancourt was back to his old self the rest of the way, but it was too late for him to salvage Cleveland's season.
Wood alone won't solve the Indians' bullpen problems, but he'll help, and having Wood instead of Borowski from the start of the 2008 season probably would have at least delayed, if not eliminated, the impetus to deal Sabathia.
Wood had no arm problems in his first full year in relief, although he missed a few weeks with back soreness and a blister on his index finger. He still threw more innings than Brian Fuentes and just two fewer than Rodriguez. His stuff translated well to the relief role: He showed a mid-90s four-seamer with good life and a low-80s slider with a very sharp, late break. He threw strikes (issuing half the unintentional walks that K-Rod did) and was very aggressive in attacking hitters. He's likely to give up a few more long balls this year, but as long as he's healthy, he'll be a big upgrade over what Cleveland used in the ninth inning last season. The contract limits Cleveland's risk if Wood does get hurt again, and the third year will kick in only if he's healthy and effective.
The signing leaves Fuentes as the one proven closer in his prime on the market, with the Angels, Cardinals and Tigers all looking for someone to pitch the ninth inning. Juan Cruz, who has the stuff but not the experience, remains available for a team willing to take the risk of developing him into a proven closer.