Indians sign closer Wood

CLEVELAND -- Kerry Wood wasn't concerned the Cleveland Indians would find a red flag in his massive medical records.

He was certain the elbow X-rays, MRI exam results on his shoulder and confidential documents would meet approval, clearing him to sign his first free-agent contract.

"With what I've gone through and what I've come back from, there was no doubt in my mind," Wood said. "I was just worried they would need a dolly or two to get it over to them.

"You play for 10 years and a lot can happen."

Wood would know.

The former Cubs right-hander, who has revived his injury-riddled career as a reliever, finalized a $20.5 million, two-year deal on Saturday with the Indians, whose high expectations in 2008 crashed in a succession of early-season blown saves by an underachieving and unpredictable bullpen.

In 10 years, Wood, who saved 34 games in his first season finishing for Chicago, has gone from rising star to a question mark, from the front of the rotation to the back of the bullpen, and now from one league to the other.

The closer is starting over.

The 31-year-old gets $10 million next year and $10.5 million in 2010. An $11 million option kicks in if Wood has 55 games finished in either of the next two years.

Cleveland's investment is being viewed by some as risky. After all, Wood has been on the disabled list 12 times. But his only visit last season was for a blister on his right index finger, and the Indians are confident they're making a sound move after scouting Wood and giving him a physical.

"Not only did he hold up for the season, but he was able to pitch three days in a row multiple times," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said. "He was dominant as he as ever been in his career."

After pitching in 22 games as a setup man in 2007, Wood went to spring training and won the closer's job -- vacated when the Cubs made Ryan Dempster a starter -- over Carlos Marmol and Bob Howry. He went 5-4 with a 3.26 ERA and made the All-Star team.

But he fell out of Chicago's plans this winter, when the Cubs acquired reliever Kevin Gregg from Florida as a setup man and moved Marmol to closer. Wood has no resentment toward the team that gave him his pro start by drafting the 6-foot-5 Texan in 1995.

"I understand it," Wood said. "That's part of the game and it's time to move on."

Moving into the closer's role seemed to suit the hard-throwing Wood, who can still pump his fastball into the mid-90s. He now has a nasty curve to go with it. He said the adjustment to closing took him only three weeks, a transition made easier because of his background as a power pitcher.

"I could come in and let it go," he said from his home in Arizona . "The thing I impressed myself with was the walks and command. My command was a lot better coming in for a short time."

Wood's statistics back that up. He struck out 84 batters and walked just 18 in 66 1/3 innings over 65 appearances.

More importantly, Wood felt as if his arm had been reborn.

"I've talked to relievers who said they felt better the morning after they throw," Wood said. "I could never understand that, as a starter. Because it would take me every bit of four days to be able to go again. After making the transition and coming out of the bullpen, I saw there's a lot of validity to it. The more I threw, the better I felt and the better I did."

Wood also relished the opportunity to take the mound several days in a row instead of just once per week.

"I enjoy coming to the park every day with a chance to get in the game," he said.

The Indians went into the offseason with a closer as their top priority. The market was deep and included Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes and Trevor Hoffman, the career saves leader.

In Wood, though, Cleveland saw more than a big arm. The Indians coveted Wood because of his experience and a presence that can be felt in the middle of the diamond and clubhouse.

"Kerry was our No. 1 choice," Shapiro said. "I'm not sure there was anyone available who we would want to pitch the ninth inning for us. He fits our culture perfectly. We get the best of both worlds with Kerry."

The Indians haven't had a right-handed closer with stuff similar to Wood's since Jose Mesa in the 1990s.

"We've had some guys who have been unconventional, but still effective," Shapiro said. "What Kerry does is give us that prototypical closer, as well as the temperament that Joe Borowski and Bob Wickman brought."

Wood is not the same pitcher who struck out 20 Houston Astros in his fifth major league start in 1998, but the Indians don't need him to do anything more than get the last three outs.

Cleveland's courtship of Wood was helped by the club's recent opening of a new year-round training facility in Goodyear, Ariz. The Indians' new spring home is not far from Wood's in Scottsdale.

But what mattered most to Wood was the Indians, more than the other teams he and his agent talked to recently, made it clear that they wanted him.

"They came at me hard from Day 1," he said. "That was something I looked at. I looked at the records of the teams, and they had one of the best records in the second half. The talent is there. It's a great city, a great town, solid fans and a beautiful stadium."