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Alex Wood is betting on himself

Alex Wood is taking a pillow contract with a team where it will be hard to find innings if he’s not great.

Cincinnati Reds v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

On Sunday, the Dodgers re-acquired the best pitcher involved in the Yasiel Puig trade.

Trevor Bauer?

No. The other Yasiel Puig trade.

Homer Bailey?

Ugh! No! Alex Wood! You know, the pitcher who was worth 7.8 WARP between 2017 and 2018? With an incentive-heavy contract worth at least $4 million, and as much as $10 million, the Dodgers replaced Hyun-jin Ryu’s innings with Wood, who had quite recently been as good.

Ryu, commanded a four-year, $80 million deal while Wood is taking the tiniest of pillow contracts. With elite pitchers like Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg signing for record deals and even buy-low candidates like Kevin Gausman going for a guaranteed $9 million, it’s a wonder that more teams weren’t in on Wood.

Wasn’t he very bad and very hurt last season?

Well, yeah. Maybe it’s not that surprising. Still, this is a perfect, low-risk, high-reward signing. Wood’s lost 2019 was the product of a back injury and some bad home run luck. If you’re willing to believe that Wood’s injury has fully healed and the long ball problem was just small sample noise exacerbated by playing in Great American Ballpark, then every other team in baseball totally blew it by not signing him for basically nothing.

If you recognize that Wood pitching like his 2017-self isn’t exactly guaranteed, then maybe this is an underwhelming signing for the Dodgers. Wood is 29 years old and he has already lost a couple ticks from his near-90 mile per hour sinker — a pitch that has fallen out of vogue recently. His 11th percentile-spin curve doesn’t boast exceptional movement. Even his changeup, which was worth 15 runs in 2017 according to pitch values, has lost three inches of break in the last two seasons.

It’s becoming a little clearer why no other team could outbid the Dodgers. 2017 wasn’t that long ago, but things change quickly for pitchers. It was unthinkable that Ryu would get a four-year deal back then, just as it was unthinkable that Wood would settle for a one-year contract.

Still, Wood doesn’t have to pitch like it’s 2017 again for this to work out for the Dodgers. Even if he only hits his modest Steamer projections—128 innings, 4.09 ERA, 1.6 fWAR—he’ll be a steal. Not every team has a pitcher of that quality to swing between the rotation and the bullpen. The problem for Wood is that the Dodgers have several of those kinds of pitchers. Ross Stripling and Kenta Maeda might be the second or third best starters on lesser teams, but with the Dodgers, they have to fight with Dustin May, Julio Urías, Tony Gonsolin, and now Jimmy Nelson.

Wood is looking to prove that he deserves a multi-year contract, but that’s going to be hard to do when he’ll have to be great to stay in the rotation. If he’s just what Steamer projects, the Dodgers will have better options to hand 20 or so starts to. If Wood had gone to the Orioles or the Giants, the only person standing in his way of a 30-start season would be himself. If Wood returns to form, it’d be a win for the Dodgers. It’d be an even bigger win for Wood. Taking a deal worth more in incentives than the guarantee always means the player is betting on themselves. That’s doubly true in Wood’s case.

Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.