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.
RELATED CONTENT:Baseball America's Top 100 for 2010
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.
Wood is not alone. There are several other former top prospects who in 2010 no longer qualify for rookie status, but who now appear ready to finally be given a full-time role and for whom this will be a year where they have the chance to confirm (perhaps, once and for all) whether or not we should have believed the hype.
(This might be an appropriate place to suggest that it is probably time to reexamine the standard by which baseball identifies players as "rookies." For nearly 40 years now, a rookie has been defined as a player who has never before accumulated 130 at-bats, 50 innings pitched, or 45 days on a club's active roster -- not including days spent on the disabled list, or as a September call-up -- in a season. Surely all of those numbers could be doubled, at the least, without risking that some pot-bellied graybeard would defile the sanctity of the Rookie of the Year award. Particularly in an age in which teams tarry more than ever in giving to their prospects full-time big league gigs, for reasons both developmental and financial, as clubs are increasingly wary of starting their young players' service clocks and hastening the day on which they are eligible for arbitration, and then free agency.)
These eight players are listed in alphabetical order, along with their current ages, historical rankings in Baseball America's annual Top 100 Prospects list, and major league stats so far.
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Age: 23BA Top 100: 48 (2005), 38 (2006), 5 (2007), 9 (2008)MLB stats: 37 G, 195.0 IP, 12-13, 5.45 ERA, 1.61 WHIP, 6.1 K/9
The Reds selected Bailey No. 7 overall out of Texas's LaGrange High in 2004, and since then he has been a model of inconsistency. He had a difficult 2005 in Single-A Dayton (8-4, 4.43 ERA), then a great 2006 with high-A Sarasota and Double-A Chattanooga (10-6, 2.46). Then he followed a solid 2007 in Triple-A Louisville (6-3, 3.07) with a poor 2008 there (4-7, 4.77). His nascent major league career, which has spanned parts of three seasons, has been similarly hit-or-miss. He allowed five earned runs in a game three separate times during the first three weeks of last August, but was terrific in seven September and October starts, compiling a 4-1 record with a 2.08 ERA. Reds GM Walt Jocketty can only hope that Bailey's season-ending stretch is a sign of things to come. Jocketty calls his rotation "the strength of our club," and Bailey, the No. 4 starter, will be the rotation's x-factor, at least until Aroldis Chapman comes along.
RELATED CONTENT:Homer Bailey's long odyssey
Age: 24BA Top 100: 32 (2005), 28 (2006), 67 (2007), 48 (2008) MLB stats: 778 AB, .249 BA, 16 HR, 79 RBIs, 3 SB
Barton, the '03 first round pick whom the A's acquired along with Dan Haren and Kiko Calero in the 2004 trade that sent Mark Mulder to St. Louis, has reason to be jittery this spring. He was supposed to hold down Oakland's first base job well into this coming decade, but he has thus far shown very little power in parts of three seasons at the big league level and now he has a host of players -- including veterans Eric Chavez and Jake Fox and slugging prospect Chris Carter -- breathing down his neck. Oakland GM Billy Beane says that Carter might even break camp with the big league club, so if Barton is going to once and for all prove that he's the A's long-term answer at first, he is going to have to do it rather soon.
Age: 26BA Top 100: 33 (2006), 62 (2007), 42 (2008)MLB stats: 219 AB, .237 BA, 7 HR, 26 RBIs, 0 SB
The Mariners picked the catcher out of USC third overall in the 2005 draft, behind Justin Upton and Alex Gordon and ahead of Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Braun. Upton, Gordon and Zimmerman were all 2009 All-Stars, but Clement spent the entire season in Triple-A -- first in Seattle's organization, and then, after he was one of five players sent to the Pirates for Ian Snell and Jack Wilson, in Pittsburgh's. The Mariners didn't like him as a catcher, and neither do the Pirates, but his new club's first base job is his to lose. He'll try to prove that the power he demonstrated in the minors and in college can translate to the big leagues.
Age: 24BA Top 100: 60 (2007), 52 (2008)MLB stats: 1,017 AB, .246 BA, 12 HR, 99 RBIs, 59 SB
Gomez doesn't really belong on this list, and there is no argument to be made that he should qualify for rookie status, as two years ago he played in 153 games for the Twins and has not spent a day in the minors since 2007. But he remains a young player, one whose star was once high enough that was the centerpiece of the four prospect package that landed the Mets Johan Santana before the 2008 season. This is a make-or-break year for him in Milwaukee, where he was traded last November in return for shortstop J.J. Hardy. He will have the chance to prove that he's more than a physically impressive and speedy player who has, as they say, "no idea" at either the plate -- he has struck out in nearly a quarter of his big league at bats, and has a sub-.300 career OBP -- or on the base paths, as anyone who watched his crushing base running blunder in Game 2 of last year's ALDS will tell you.
Age: 26BA Top 100: 32 (2007), 63 (2008)MLB stats: 51 G, 284.2 IP, 13-26, 5.88 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 5.7 K/9
Picked behind Hochevar in the '06 draft? Everyone, including Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum. Hochevar went first. Hochevar has over the past two seasons proven that he can dominate Triple-A hitters -- he was 6-2 with a 1.79 ERA in 11 starts with Omaha in 2008 and '09 -- and while he's shown flashes of brilliance with the Royals (a three-hit, complete game shutout of the White Sox last Sept. 18), those have been few and far between (in the starts immediately before and after that shutout, he allowed five and six earned runs). Unlike Bailey, Hochevar ended 2009 sourly -- he was 1-5 with a 9.38 ERA in September and October -- and he still seems a long way from becoming the ace the Royals have long expected him to be, as evidenced by the fact that they cut his salary by the maximum 20 percent for 2010.
Age: 25BA Top 100: 23 (2008), 27 (2009)MLB stats: 181 AB, .254 BA, 7 HR, 21 RBIs, 2 SB
LaPorta has less major league experience than anyone else on this list, Wood included, and, as a veteran of all of 52 games played, is a player who really should be eligible to win the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2010. Alas, he has 51 at-bats too many, as the Indians brought him up for most of May, and then, with an eye on his service clock, delayed another recall from Triple-A Columbus until the end of August. By then it was too late for him to get any sort of power rhythm going, and his numbers look somewhat disappointing, for a slugging former first round pick who was the prize in the July 08 trade that sent CC Sabathia to the Brewers. He was, however, hampered by injuries to his left hip and left big toe, which were surgically repaired in October. Now he's finally set to be an everyday starter for the Indians -- probably mostly in left field, as Cleveland signed veteran first baseman Russell Branyan to a one-year deal on Feb. 19.
Age: 22BA Top 100: 31 (2006), 6 (2007), 6 (2008), 8 (2009)MLB stats: 257 AB, .261 BA, 5 HR, 17 RBIs, 10 SB
Maybin, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2005 draft, was the Marlins' Opening Day starter in center field last year and was supposed to lock the job down, but he was clearly overmatched. He was hitting .202 when the club sent him to Triple-A New Orleans on May 10, where he watched as a less-touted Marlins rookie, Chris Coghlan, hit his way to the NL Rookie of the Year award. Maybin played better as a September call-up, raising his batting average to .250. He should again start in center for the Marlins on Opening Day this season, and even though he'll never be the Rookie of the Year, he's still awfully young and will have another chance to display the five-tool skill set that made him the linchpin of the December 2007 trade that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from Florida to Detroit.
Age: 22BA Top 100: 53 (2007), 11 (2008), 6 (2009)MLB stats: 314 AB, .255 BA, 11 HR, 42 RBIs, 1 SB
Snider is even younger than Maybin -- he just turned 22 on Feb. 2 -- but Toronto undoubtedly hoped for more from their 2006 first round pick on the big league level than he gave them last year. He hit just .241 in a season in which he was sent down to Las Vegas from late May to mid-August (where he destroyed Triple-A pitching, batting .337 with 14 home runs and 40 RBI, with a 1.094 OPS in 48 games). Now he's the Jays' full-time right fielder, although if he struggles new GM Alex Anthopoulos has indicated that he will again be sent southwest to Vegas. At least he is of Craps-rolling age, if only barely.