A few days before Christmas last year, the Reds and Dodgers finalized a big trade. You probably already knew that since you’re reading this column, and my readers are the smartest people on the planet. (Also, the trade wasn’t kept secret; in fact, it was widely publicized in the media.)
Since that day, most of the oxygen in the room has been taken up by Yasiel Puig, the dazzling and unpredictable outfielder who immediately became a fan favorite in Cincinnati. Even the most hardened cynics (like this guy) have enjoyed Puig’s freewheeling presence and community activism, even as we’re still waiting to be overwhelmed by his actual play on the field.
But there was a very good argument at the time that the best player involved in that trade was lefty Alex Wood. Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten to know Wood as well as Puig because he has yet to pitch a single inning for the home team. After making just one appearance this spring, Wood has been struggling with back spasms and inflammation and has been on the injured list the entire season.
The good news is that Wood finally appears to be on his way back after throwing a bullpen session over the weekend and emerging healthy. He hopes to begin a rehab assignment in the minor leagues any time now, which means we might get to see him on a Great American Ball Park mound very soon indeed.
But what comes after that? How are the Reds going to handle a good pitcher who will be a free agent at season’s end? It will be fascinating to watch if you’re one of the die-hards—and you know you are.
First, let’s establish Wood’s bona fides for those of you who aren’t as familiar with him. He was drafted in the second round by Atlanta back in 2012 and made his big league debut less than a year later at age 22. Almost immediately, he was one of the better starters in the league, throwing 171.2 innings in his first full season while posting an ERA of 2.78.
In 2015, Wood was traded to Los Angeles, and he missed part of 2016 with an elbow injury. But in 2017, he was very good once again, going 16-3 with a 2.72 ERA and earning his first berth on the National League All-Star team. The elbow was better, but he missed time in two different stretches because of inflammation in his shoulder. Last year, Wood had an up and down season but topped 150 innings once again, posting a 3.68 ERA (while spending 10 days on the injured list with tendonitis in his adductor).
When healthy and at his best, I would argue that Wood is very nearly a quintessential No. 2 starter in any rotation. Even with the injury issues, he’s been among the most productive pitchers in all of baseball. To wit: His total of 5.4 wins above replacement over the last two years is 28th-best in either league, just behind Dallas Keuchel.
Now he’s 28 years old and at a crossroads. When he finally makes his Reds debut, there will likely be less than a month before the trade deadline rolls around. That’s not a lot of time for Wood to prove he’s healthy and still effective, so the Reds will have to assess the market very quickly. If he looks like the Alex Wood of old, some team is likely to be interested. Quality left-handed starters are a precious commodity.
Remember, though, that he’ll be a free agent at the end of the season. Teams have been increasingly reluctant to part with valuable assets in exchange for two months of a trade deadline acquisition. And if the Reds can’t get someone in return who might be projected to help the team for the next few seasons, what’s the point?
Here’s a crazy idea I’ve talked myself into: The Reds should make a serious effort at signing Wood to a contract extension before the season ends. I know, I know, throwing money at oft-injured pitchers is a good way to go broke. But when I look at Wood, I see a guy who should still be in his prime and could provide real value to the Cincinnati rotation over the next few years, say it with me, if he is reasonably healthy. But those injuries might present the Reds with a nice risk/reward opportunity.
The first consideration here is that Wood is legitimately good and still relatively young. Opponents don’t make hard contact against him, and he features a beautiful changeup that induces groundballs at an above-average rate and will play nicely at GABP. He also has a long track record of not surrendering many home runs; over the last two seasons, Wood is among the top 10 pitchers in all of baseball in HR rate. (Don’t attribute that solely to pitching in Dodger Stadium. His HR/9 numbers with Atlanta were similarly impressive.)
In addition, Wood’s injury history just doesn’t seem as bad as I had thought before exploring this idea. He’s hurt his elbow, his shoulder, his thigh, and now his back. It’s not like these are recurring problems, and before this season, only the elbow problem caused him to miss any real time. (Though it must be noted that Wood did have Tommy John surgery all the way back in high school.) While it looks on the surface as if Wood is injury prone, he’s pitched more than 150 innings in four of his five full big league seasons. That’s pretty good.
Over the next few months, the timing might be absolutely perfect for the Reds to explore a contract extension. Will Wood, coming off another injury, really want to explore a free agent market that’s more unpredictable than any in recent memory? Sure, he’s a lefty and that’s a valuable commodity, but it’s quite possible that the security of a deal with the Reds might entice him, as it did Sonny Gray last winter.
From the Reds’ perspective, the price could be right as well. If they could sign him to a three- or four-year extension—especially if the price were similar to Gray’s three-year deal—Wood would be a superb lefty complement to the duo of Luis Castillo and Gray over the next few years. If you add Tyler Mahle to the mix, the Reds would have the makings of a really nice rotation that will all be under contract for the foreseeable future.
Much will depend on how Wood performs when he returns, of course. His strikeout rate dropped somewhat last year, so management will have to keep an eye on his actual production when he finally dons a Cincinnati uniform, looking for signs that he’ll look like the Alex Wood we’ve seen in the past. The Reds will obviously also have to be satisfied with his medical reports; for example, is the back issue a chronic thing?
Sure it seems crazy to be talking extension about a guy who hasn’t thrown a pitch for the Reds, but that’s what you’ve come to expect from me, right? There are lots of questions that need to be answered first, but this could present a great opportunity for the Reds to shore up their rotation long-term. Now, if only they could hit…
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. He wrote about the 1970s Reds as part of the magazine’s “10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati” package. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.