Time is now for Wood and other former top prospects
Los Angeles Angels' Brandon Wood will have his first full-time role this season
Wood had been blocked in Anaheim in years past by Chone Figgins
Hoemr Bailey, Daric Barton are among other players finally getting a chance
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Brandon Wood is not technically a rookie, but in every meaningful way, he is. For most of the past three seasons, he pogoed between Los Angeles and Triple A-Salt Lake, never locking down a regular role with the Angels and always wondering when he would finally get his chance.
"I think anybody wouldn't be telling the truth if they said they didn't lay down at night and think about when their opportunity's going to come," Wood said the other day from Angels camp. "With that being said, I understood it at the same time."
He understood it because he was a member of the Angels organization, and the Angels don't tend to give their prospects full-time big league jobs until they are more than ready. And he understood it because there was really nowhere on the big league team for a shortstop like him to play, with an infield that last season featured Kendry Morales, Chone Figgins, Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick and Maicer Izturis. "When I looked at the lineup, Figgy's an All-Star, Aybar's hitting .320, Howie and Izzy are playing the heck out of second and hitting, too, Kendry's doing what he did at first," Wood said. "Maybe I could catch," he joked, "but then you have [Mike Napoli] hitting 20 home runs and Jeff [Mathis] playing All-Star defense. There was really no place to go."
As this season approaches, Wood no longer has reason for restless nights. Barring the occurrence of anything unforeseen, the starting third baseman's job should in 2010 belong to Wood, and to Wood alone. A self-assured and good-natured player who turned 25 on Tuesday, it is the first time he has ever entered camp as a projected everyday regular. Said Angels center fielder Torii Hunter, "Brandon, man, he's not worried about too much. This is not his first rodeo."
Indeed, Wood has ridden in several rodeos before, each of which has lasted far less, metaphorically, than eight seconds, and in none of which did his form look particularly good. In his 224 total major league at-bats so far, he's hitting .192 with seven home runs and 19 RBI. There is no doubt that the tenuousness of his position, and the lack of regular playing time contributed to those numbers
Wood has never had more than the 150 at-bats he received in 2008, the last 21 of which made him ineligible for both Rookie of the Year honors and, for all practical purposes, another spot on Baseball America's vaunted Top 100 Prospects list, on which he had been a regular member. Wood, a 2003 first-round pick (23rd overall) out of Scottsdale's Horizon High, was ranked 83rd before the 2005 season, but after a breakout year with high Class A Rancho Cucamonga in which he hit .321 with 43 home runs and 115 RBI, he soared to No. 3 on the 2006 list. Prior the 2007 season, he was No. 8. Before 2008, he was No. 16.
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Wood played just 18 major league games in 2009, but the Angels' conviction that he was finally ready to be a full-time member of their major league roster was one reason they did not try harder to prevent Figgins from signing a four-year, $36 million free agent contract with the Mariners last December. It was similar to the team's approach the off-season before, when their belief in Morales led them to watch, without putting up much of a fight, as incumbent first baseman Mark Teixeira signed with with the Yankees. In his first full season, 2009, Morales finished fifth in the AL MVP voting and had a .924 OPS. Teixeira finished second in the MVP balloting, with an OPS of .948. The Angels like it when they can essentially replace the production of departed free agents with homegrown players to whom they can pay a fraction as much.
"To have a year like Kendry had [in `09] would be just exceptional," says Wood. "It would be wonderful if it happened, but it probably won't, not quite yet." Tony Reagins, the Angels' GM, doesn't expect Wood to contend for an MVP award in 2010, but he does view him as a much more advanced hitter than he was back in 2005, when he had that season that might have led other organizations to fast-track him to the majors. In the minors from 2006 to '09, he hit 25, 33, 31 and 22 home runs, even though the latter three seasons, all at Triple-A, were interrupted by those intermittent call-ups. Even as his power numbers remained impressive, his strikeout rate has each year improved. In 2006, with Double-A Arkansas, Wood struck out an alarming 149 times, once every 3.0 at-bats. In 2009, he struck out 80 times, or once every 4.8 at-bats. "It's our hope that those numbers continues to go down, as far as strikeouts, and his walks continue to go up," Reagins says. "If they do that, he'll be fine."
Add his defensive skills that the Angels feel could one day soon win Wood a Gold Glove, and you have, says Reagins, someone who has "the potential to be a dominating player."
A dominating player who will never, of course, win a Rookie of the Year award, but that's of little concern to Wood. He has made it. He will no longer lie in bed at night and wonder when he'll get his chance, and he will no longer travel between Anaheim and Salt Lake City so frequently that the flight attendants start to look familiar. He will finally have his opportunity to deliver on all those years of promise.
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