Alex Wood’s ill-timed shot at free agency, on the heels of an injury-sullied 2019 season, was in its beginning stages when Ross Stripling asked whether he should rent a place for spring training in Arizona with a bedroom for him. They had lived together the previous four springs — three as Dodgers teammates and the fourth after Wood joined the Cincinnati Reds last year. It had become tradition.
But Wood was still unemployed and unsure where he would land. Teams weren’t exactly clamoring for his services at a price he believed he was worth after a disappointing 2019. He told Stripling to go ahead without him in case he signed with a team that trained in Florida.
Two months later, the two pitchers are locker neighbors at Camelback Ranch, teammates again after Wood and the Dodgers agreed last month to a one-year, $4-million contract with up to $6 million in incentives.
“When I left last year I didn’t foresee myself coming back here because I just didn’t see it fitting again,” Wood said. “Sometimes it’s funny how the world works.”
It was an unexpected reunion made possible by unanticipated developments. But Wood didn’t return to Los Angeles just because he enjoyed his 3½ years with the Dodgers. He signed with them because he was all but assured he would be a member of the team’s starting rotation. Wood’s inclusion means the Dodgers’ starting rotation for opening day will be Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, David Price, Julio Urías and Wood, barring injury.
“I love these guys and I love this place,” Wood said, “but I wouldn’t have taken the risk of coming back without knowing that when opening day comes around I’ll be in the rotation.”
The Dodgers traded Wood to the Reds in December 2018 as part of a deal that also sent Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Kyle Farmer to Cincinnati. They received right-hander Homer Bailey, who was immediately waived, and prospects Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray. It was a salary dump for the Dodgers and an effort to contend for the Reds.
Farmer is the only player the Reds received in the trade still with the team. The Dodgers used Downs as part of a package to get Mookie Betts and David Price from the Boston Red Sox, and Gray has emerged as one of baseball’s best pitching prospects.
Wood, 29, began last season with a 3.29 career earned-run average. He was two seasons removed from being on the National League All-Star team and holding the Houston Astros to one run in 5 2/3 innings in Game 4 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros used an illegal sign-stealing scheme that season.
But Wood began dealing with back spasms halfway through spring training in 2019 and couldn’t shake them. They continued through the season, limiting him to seven starts. He had a 5.80 ERA in 35 2/3 innings as the Reds finished in fourth place in the NL Central with a 75-87 record.
“I just couldn’t get over the hump,” Wood said. “It kind of took making it to the offseason to fully get over it.”
His free-agent stock plummeted. However, the Dodgers rotation depth, the reason why Wood didn’t expect to return to Los Angeles, took a hit when Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill signed elsewhere after the Dodgers fell short in the Gerrit Cole chase. The events produced a second marriage between Wood and the Dodgers.
Wood came back after a modified offseason. He closely worked with Driveline’s Rob Hill, now a pitching coordinator with the Dodgers, on staying consistent with his unusual delivery, working to ensure all the moving parts are in sync. The idea is that more consistency also will help prevent back spasms.
The first test was Sunday in the Dodgers’ Cactus League home opener against the Chicago Cubs. Wood tossed a scoreless first inning inning. He gave up a two-out double to Victor Caratini but stranded him. He struck out two batters and his velocity sat at 92 and 93 mph in his first outing in a Dodgers uniform since the 2018 World Series.
“As far as Day 1, you got your emotions up there, your adrenaline, [it was a] really positive day,” manager Dave Roberts said.
It’s a return Wood didn’t predict and an opportunity to reestablish his value before another crack at free agency. He’ll try where he feels most comfortable, with an organization he helped propel to consecutive World Series appearances before his departure, with some of his closest friends in baseball. He just had to find somewhere else to live in the spring.