Back in action: Wood takes part in drills

Back in action: Wood takes part in workouts

MESA, Ariz. -- News flash: Kerry Wood did throw off a mound on Thursday.

He didn't throw 98-mph fastballs, but he was able to take part in fielding practice on the first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers in the Chicago Cubs camp. After a long winter of rehab and endless hours in dreary clinics, he was back where he belongs.

"It's nice to be back in spikes again with our uniforms on and going through drills with the rest of the guys," Wood said Thursday. "I'd like to be able to just jump up and go out there and throw, but I'm getting there."

Wood has been limited to throwing on flat ground since January, and threw again Thursday for the second day in a row. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder at the end of August, and plans on being back in the rotation this year. When that will be is impossible to say.

"He's doing fine," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "You always want him further ahead than he is but in our minds, he's right where he should be at this time. There have been no setbacks, his rehab is going well. He hasn't been off the mound yet, but right now we're satisfied with his progress."

Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild is monitoring Wood's progress, along with the medical staff. The team isn't posting Wood's schedule.

"It's impossible to predict a rehab," Baker said. "We want him as soon as possible, but you can't rush him. You have to build him up to the point where you have him at the end of the year. Hopefully, it's not too long."

The right-hander overpowered hitters in 1998, winning 13 games -- including 20 strikeouts in one -- and picked up the National League Rookie of the Year award. He won 14 games in 2003, and was dazzling in the NL Division Series against Atlanta. That seems like a long time ago. Since he's been in the big leagues, Wood has had surgery on his right elbow in 1999 and now his right shoulder.

"He hasn't had an offseason, he's been working every day since he had the surgery -- it's tough," Cubs pitcher Mark Prior said. "It's not an easy game as it is, but when you have physical ailments, and I can relate to that, it makes it tougher. Coming back from surgery is tough mentally as well as physically. It's a grind. There are long days of monotonous, boring kind of things that you have to get through."

Wood seems to be handling all of that just fine.

"He seems to be upbeat about it, I think he expects himself to come back and be the guy who he once was and will be," Prior said. "The way the game is going nowadays, you can have a long career. It isn't 30 years ago when guys were fading out at 32, 33 [years of age]. He's got a lot of years left, and he can do a lot of great things in this game."

First, Wood, just 28, has to get on the mound and actually pitch.

"I don't even have a date for when I'm going to get on the mound," Wood said. "If I keep progressing the way I'm progressing now, it'll be sooner rather than later. I'm not even setting a date for when I throw that first bullpen."

Wood is being prepped to return to the rotation. His brief relief stint last season was his way of trying to contribute and keep the Cubs alive in the pennant race.

In hindsight, it would be easy to say that Wood should have had the surgery earlier so he could be ready by Opening Day 2006.

"Nobody asked me that question last year," Wood said. "We were in a pennant race last year, and that's the bottom line. If I could bring something to the table -- whether it was coming out of the bullpen for an inning or two -- that's what I brought to the table. Technically, we weren't mathematically eliminated when I did get the surgery, but we went as long as we thought we could go."

As for his rehab now, it's solely to be a starter. Rothschild said he didn't want to retard Wood's progress by putting him in the bullpen, which would limit his pitches or innings.

"I think once he's off the mound a few times and faces some hitters, and doesn't have setbacks, we'll have a better timetable," Rothschild said of Wood's rehab plan. "In my mind, I figured we weren't going to start the season with him. I've thought that all winter. Shoulders are a little different, and you better be careful because setbacks can be long term."

Will Wood even pitch in the Cactus League? Rothschild wouldn't say.

"I can't put a timetable on it," he said. "We're not at a point where I can sit here and say that. We've got a lot of hurdles to pass -- the arm strength has to be built up, the breaking balls. Until we see that, I don't know."

So far, so good.

"It feels pretty good," Wood said of his shoulder after Thursday's session. "The more I throw, the better it gets."

That's good news. Wood also had reason to celebrate on Jan. 21, when wife Sarah gave birth to their first child, Justin Dean.

"You worry a lot less about yourself and things going on with you, especially with the little guy," Wood said. "Regardless of the situation at work, it's fun to come home. It's awesome. I love it."

Because of off-days in the first two weeks of the regular season, the Cubs can get by with three starting pitchers. They have Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Greg Maddux, Glendon Rusch and Jerome Williams to choose from. When Wood is ready to return to the Cubs rotation, it'll be as if they dealt for a bona fide starter. The team needs him.

"Definitely. He's the leader of this pitching staff and always has been," Maddux said.

Wood shrugged that label off.

"Obviously, Maddux is Maddux and that goes without saying what he's done in this game," Wood said. "I think we all look to each other. Guys respect each other in the clubhouse and throughout the pitching staff. I don't think there's any one particular player who is different than any other."

Well, Wood is Wood.

"He pitched through a lot of pain the last couple years," Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster said. "I think he had a hard time because of it. Here's a guy who's trying to go out and perform, and he got a lot of flack for it. It's good to see that he's healthy.

"Woody's been a big part of the Cubs organization, striking out 20 and being part of the team for so long, so I can see how he gets a lot of [criticism]," Dempster said. "But you have to remember, he's one of 25 guys. He's just as important as everybody else. When we get him back, it'll be incredible."

"I'm counting on him," Baker said. "I just don't know when we're counting on him."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.