Sixty days after Theo Epstein was named the president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, he made an unpopular trade.
Two days before Christmas in 2011, he sent popular and versatile reliever Sean Marshall to the Cincinnati Reds—a team within the Cubs division—for a package of players that most notably included a then 24-year-old left handed starting pitcher named Travis Wood.
Some Cubs fans were so willing to give Epstein and his new regime a chance, they supported the trade for the simple reason that their savior made it. Some said there was no reason to invest heavily in a middle reliever—albeit a good one—when the team wasn’t ready to compete. (Marshall would eventually sign a three year extension worth $16.5 million this past off season to remain with Cincinnati).
But the vast majority lamented that a team in shambles—following a 91 loss season—couldn’t afford to keep of one of the few talented players they had.
Last year, while Cubs fans suffered through the early pains of Epstein’s rebuilding plan, I lost count of how many callers phoned WGN Radio to complain about “the Marshall trade”.
Fast forward just two months into Wood’s second year as a Cubs starting pitcher, and nobody is calling for the return of Sean Marshall. Now they’re asking if Travis Wood is a legitimate part of the Cubs future.
And the answer just might be yes.
In his nine starts this season, every single one has been a quality start. Wood has allowed three runs in just three of those nine, but only twice were all three runs earned. He has been so good, and so consistent, his manager said something I never expected anyone to ever say about the bearded lefty.
“He’s the best starter in baseball, pretty much,” Dale Sveum said following Wood’s one run, six hit outing lifting the Cubs to a 2-1 victory over St. Louis May 7th.
Is he the best starter in baseball? No. Ask anyone for the top ten pitchers in the game, and Travis Wood wouldn’t even make Ronnie Woo-Woo’s list. But the now 26-year-old’s impressive start to the 2013 season creates an interesting story for a team in the process of rebuilding.
Can Wood keep this up? Probably not. Entering Monday’s start, his career ERA was just under four. To expect him to shave nearly two runs off that average consistent isn’t likely to happen.
But when he comes back to earth, if he remains a solid, consistent starter, the Cubs should strongly consider keeping him for the long term.
Quality left handed starters don’t grow on trees. Wood is still young, he’s making just $527,500 this year, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, and becomes arbitration eligible for the first time after this season.
Young, affordable, left-handed and potentially, pretty good.
“Travis Wood has really made that next step,” said Cubs television play-by-play man Len Kasper on “Cubs Weekly” on WGN Radio. “You really can now project him as part of the future here.”
Besides the upcoming amateur draft and the development of the team’s prospects, Epstein and company continue to evaluate the active roster to determine which players will be here for the eventual turnaround. It’s easy to conclude Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Jeff Samardzija will be prominent parts of that core. But it’s also important for them to determine which ancillary parts may also be of value.
Enter, Travis Wood.
“You can’t expect every pitcher to be a top of the rotation guy,” Kasper added. “You’ve got to fill out one through five in terms of your slots. To me, Travis would be an ideal four starter, even five. And you match him up against four starters from around baseball, and he stacks up very well.”
Like any developing pitcher, Wood has made subtle adjustments which have allowed him to have more consistent success. He’s throwing a higher percentage of cut fastballs and sliders, which has brought him greater success against right handed hitting. As Wood gets older, more experienced and continues to tweak his approach, it’s reasonable to conclude he can incrementally improve to remain a viable option for the Cubs in the long term.
He’ll never be the Cubs ace, but that doesn’t matter. What does, is that Epstein’s move to acquire him looks like one that may benefit the Cubs for years to come.
And then we can give that unpopular swap from a year and a half ago a more satisfying new name—the “Travis Wood trade”.