Wood to return with Cubs in 2008

Wood to return with Cubs in 2008

CHICAGO -- Kerry Wood decided to stay home.

The Cubs agreed Monday to a one-year, $4.2 million contract with the free agent pitcher, who had been courted by several other teams for their bullpens.

"It's a very positive day for the Cubs," general manager Jim Hendry said. "Bringing Kerry back was a priority."

Wood's contract could pay him an additional $3.45 million in performance incentives based on games finished if he does end up pitching in the ninth inning on a regular basis. The right-hander received a lot of interest, including several multi-year offers.

"It's flattering, and it shows the hard work paid off," Wood said of the bids, "but Chicago's my home, and Chicago's been great to me, and obviously there's no better place to play than Chicago, especially if you're winning, and that's been the plan."

The 2007 season was Wood's first full year as a reliever, and he will get the opportunity to be the Cubs' closer in 2008, competing with Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol for the job this spring. Ryan Dempster, who saved 28 games last season, is switching to the rotation, and manager Lou Piniella and pitching coach Larry Rothschild will decide who gets the ball in the ninth. Wood wants to be that guy.

"I think anybody who plays the game wants to be in that position," Wood said. "If you're playing short, you want the ball hit to you, and to make the last out of the game. It's not an easy job. Dempster got a little harsh criticism last year, and he was fourth or fifth in save percentage, and he had a rough time doing it.

"It's a rewarding job," Wood said. "You definitely know that when you're in the game, the game's on the line. That's fun. That's why you play the game for the adrenaline and excitement. We need somebody down there who can get it done."

"It always sorts itself out," Hendry said of the competition.

Marmol led the National League with the lowest percentage of inherited runners scoring and was second with a .169 batting average against. Howry was 8-for-12 in save situations.

"Everyone knows what they can do, and the quality of their work," Hendry said of his trio. "The only question Woody has to answer is he's now going to have to take it to the level of not limiting himself to back-to-back days. If you're going to be pitching all the time in the eighth and ninth, you're going to have to, on occasion, pitch three days in a row."

Wood, 30, did pitch in both ends of a day-night doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 15, totaling one inning in each game. He was 1-1 with a 3.33 ERA in 22 appearances last season, coming back from right shoulder problems that limited him to four games in 2006. In September, he appeared in 12 games, striking out 14 over 13 innings.

Hot Stove

"Kerry proved that when he's like he was in September, he's got great stuff still and certainly has the character and fortitude to get people out in the ninth inning," Hendry said.

What was even more encouraging to Wood is that his arm felt good at the end of the year, and he wanted to keep pitching.

"I don't think the questions [regarding his health] will stop," he said. "For me, I don't question it. People know my arm's been hurt. I go into cities and people in the stands yell, 'How's your elbow?' My elbow's been great."

The 2008 season will be Wood's 14th in the Cubs organization. He burst onto the scene in 1998 when he struck out 20 in his fifth big league start and won NL Rookie of the Year. Wood ranks fourth on the team's all-time strikeout list with 1,323 K's, while his .215 batting average against is the lowest of any pitcher in franchise history (minimum 1,000 innings pitched).

Starting is no longer an option, Wood said.

"At this point, no," he said. "Obviously, anything can change. From my standpoint and what I've been through, I think the best decision for me at this point is to take the work load and cut it in half. I feel strong enough to go out and [start], but I know what it takes to go out and eat up 200 plus innings, I know what kind of toll it takes on your body.

"From what I've been through, I don't know if it's wise for me to take that chance."

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