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Travis Wood: NL Starting Pitcher

One of the easiest ways to get overlooked in fantasy is to be a slightly above-average player on a bad team. Great players from bad teams rise out of their squalid surroundings to perhaps even become overvalued. Above-average players on good teams tend to get noticed as people see them play when they’re watching for more established stars, but there’s a nice sweet spot for players who are good enough to be fantasy-relevant, but who aren’t going to draw many eyes on their own. The Cubs’ rotation may be better known for its potential to be decimated by trades in the next six weeks than for its depth, but while Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster may soon leave NL-only owners grumbling about their loss of eligibility, Travis Wood is quietly asserting himself as a functional major leaguer and a relatively unowned option for NL-only and very deep mixed leagues, as he’s available in 98 percent of Yahoo! leagues and over 99 percent of ESPN leagues.

Wood came to the Cubs from the Reds in exchange for Sean Marshall, but was unable to win a spot in the rotation out of camp. Rather than move him to the bullpen, the Cubs sent him to Triple-A, where he put up really pedestrian numbers: 3-3 with a 4.57 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP,  though he did sport a decent 8.5 K/9. He made a spot start in place of Garza, headed back to Triple-A, then was recalled for good on May 22. His first start in the rotation was passable, but his second effort was a mess as he recorded as many home runs (four) as he did strike outs. His overall May line was largely uninspiring, but June has been far better.

In his five starts so far this month, Wood has failed to record a quality start just once, when he scuffled a bit against the Twins. Even then, Wood gave up only three runs, but failed to reach the required six innings. The biggest difference in Wood’s recent performance is that he seems to have solved his home run issues. Where he allowed six homers in three May starts, he’s allowed just one in his five starts so far this month. His WHIP has remained the same at 1.20, but his ERA has fallen from 5.94 at the end of May to 3.54 at present.

Those good marks do bring up an important point: His overall line scares the heck out of me. The numbers aren’t bad, but his peripherals are just horrid. A 1.20 WHIP is plenty good for an SP3, but when it comes with a 3.72 BB/9 and a 27 percent line drive rate, I’m suddenly far less interested. Similarly, his 3.54 ERA is good enough to be rostered in most leagues, but his FIP is nearly a run-and-a-half higher at 4.92. Fortunately, those secondary metrics are still picking up his ungood May performance. So far this month, his strikeouts are up, his walks are down, his FIP is down to a much more sustainable 3.37, and while he’s still giving up far too many line drives to take the next step forward, he isn’t leaving quite so many hanging pitches up in the zone to be deposited onto Waveland Ave.

Wood isn’t headed for fantasy greatness. There’s just a few things that would need to change about his profile in order for me to be really excited about him, but they’re sort of big things like “don’t walk so many hitters” and “find a way to miss more bats with your slider.” He won’t make Cubs fans forget Garza or Dempster when they’re inevitably dealt, but when Jhouyls Chacin is still owned in 16 percent of Yahoo! leagues, there are clearly some rosters out there that would do better with Wood’s addition at the expense of an underperforming piece. At 25, I see no reason he won’t continue to improve at least incrementally as he adjusts to the majors, and while I don’t think he’ll ever be a high draft pick or a sought-after trade piece, being a decent arm off the waiver wire isn’t the worst fate in the world.