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Should the Cincinnati Reds work Alex Wood as a reliever?

The lefty’s bad back has the window to get him ready as a starter rapidly closing.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds-Media Day Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cincinnati Reds landed lefty Alex Wood from the Los Angeles Dodgers this past winter in the massive deal that also brought in Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, and Kyle Farmer, there were many folks who thought the Reds had just landed their Opening Day starter. Heck, even after the dust settled and both Tanner Roark and Sonny Gray had also been acquired, many still thought Wood was the single most talented arm the Reds had brought in during a busy offseason, and that wasn’t without merit.

Wood, 28, had compiled quite the solid resume for the back to back NL champs, pitching to a 3.20 ERA in 304 IP between 2017-2018 with a 3.43 FIP that suggested that kind of production was sustainable. So, when we watched him labor through a 3-run, 1 IP Cactus League performance on February 25th, there was every bit reason to think it was just the beginning of a promising match between the Reds and their new lefty, one that hopefully would help rectify a pitching staff that was mired in the doldrums for the last handful of years.

As it turns out, that pitching staff does look largely rectified, though it hasn’t had a bit to do with Wood. That February 25th outing in Arizona stands, to date, as the only time we’ve actually seen him pitch to opposing batters in a Reds uniform, as a balky back has kept him on the sidelines for over two months since. And given the news from yesterday that he’s seeking a second opinion on said back issues, that doesn’t exactly scream that he’s close to making a return to full health, and that’s a bummer on a number of levels.

Obviously, it’s a dent to the Reds ability to run him out on the mound on a regular basis in an attempt to actually win games, which stings. For Wood, though, the injury couldn’t have come at a worse juncture, as he’s in his final year of team control before reaching free agency, meaning he’s not getting the chance to capitalize in his walk year prior to hopefully landing a life-changing contract.

Roll those two scenarios together, though, and you find how the time crunch begins to make things even more complicated. The Reds only control Wood for the 2019 season before he has a chance to walk as a free agent, and historically those are the kinds of pieces that get moved at the July 31st trade deadline if a team doesn’t look poised for a playoff spot at that juncture. Heck, even if the 12-16 Reds go on a major tear in the coming weeks, there’s still a chance they could sell off some veteran pieces that don’t figure into the long-term plans if they have the kind of promising depth behind them ready to take over right now. That’s just how the business side of baseball works, frankly, and given that the pitching staff the Reds have right now looks easily like its strength, that they haven’t missed Wood to date might well make it more likely that he’s a piece they’d look to cash-in on as the trade deadline approaches.

Therein lies the biggest problem, however. That February 25th outing from Wood came a full month and three days prior to Opening Day, indicative of how long it takes starting pitchers to ramp up from zero activity to being fully ready to go deep into big league games. To circle back a bit, Wood is, on April 30th, seeking a second opinion on a back issue that has kept him sidelined for two months, and even if his new chiropraccupunturist miraculously cures his ills on their visit Wednesday, that leaves a timetable that wouldn’t have Wood making starts for the Cincinnati Reds until early to mid June, at the earliest.

In other words, the Reds are running very, very short on time to get Wood healthy, ramped up, stretched out, and into their starting rotation with enough time left to a) try to make a push for playoff contention and b) showcase his abilities (and health) prior to the July trade deadline. Not to mention, of course, that they’d be doing so by inserting him into a starting rotation that has pitched incredibly well without him.

Wood, though, does have extensive experience as a reliever. He has made 129 starts in his career to date, but also has 43 appearances from the bullpen since cracking the big leagues, including the final 6 appearances he made with the Dodgers during the 2018 regular season and 9 more during the 2018 postseason - his final big league appearances in any uniform at the moment. And despite the 3 dingers he allowed in those 9 postseason relief appearances last October, his larger body of work as a reliever has been excellent, as he owns a 2.70 ERA in those 50 regular season relief innings, with a 9.7 K/9 and meager .566 OPS allowed in that time.

More importantly, getting him stretched out enough to be a reliever would take significantly less time than getting him prepped as a starter, and that would get Wood back on the active roster and into big league action much, much sooner. And considering how lackluster Zach Duke has been as the primary lefty in the team’s bullpen and how inconsistent Wandy Peralta has been in that role in his young career, the idea that the Reds could benefit from adding another proven lefty reliever alongside Amir Garrett is one that might well be the most optimal addition they could make to their pitching staff at the moment.

It could well be a tough sell for Wood, of course. All of two months ago, he was looking at the prospect of fronting the revamped Reds rotation, earning $9.65 million in his final year of arbitration before hopefully landing a lucrative, multi-year contract as a top tier starting pitcher. A back injury induced change of pace to relieving, unfortunately, isn’t exactly the kind of platform any pitcher wants to enter into free agency on, so it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Wood was reluctant to make such a quick transition, even if it might well be the best fit for the Reds roster and for their trade deadline plans at this moment.

That said, pitching in the big leagues is still the best way to showcase ones talents, and the more opportunities a player gets to do just that, the better for their overall profile. For now, it may well be that getting Wood back as a lefty reliever - one who can continue to get stretched out in bullpen and side sessions once already back on the big league roster - might well be the best way for both Wood and the Reds at this particular juncture.