When 20-year-old Los Angeles Angels infielder Brandon Wood walked into the clubhouse during his first spring training in 2006, it didn't take him long to realize the expectations the organization had for him. The former 2003 first-round draft pick looked up to see his locker placed squarely between two Angels legends: Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad. The message had been sent. Wood was fresh out of A-ball where in 2005 he smacked 43 home runs and was named the California League and Single-A offensive player of the year. Before the start of 2006, Baseball America ranked him the third best overall prospect behind Justin Upton and Delmon Young. The buzz was growing around Wood, whether he liked it or not.
"It was exciting to be in Baseball America as a top prospect but at the same time, I know it doesn't mean anything until you put up numbers in the big leagues," Wood said. "I had to remind myself, 'This isn't the best part of your life right now.' It might feel like it, with all the hype and all the press, but you had to wait until you got to the big leagues and then hit 25-30 home runs."
Five years later, Wood has hit just 11 home runs in 450 at bats over four major league seasons. His express train to the big leagues has taken more detours than expected. Wood spent the majority of 2007-2009 bouncing up and down between the majors and Triple-A. He was the Angels' Opening Day third baseman in 2010 but struggled at the start and never recovered. Wood finished with a .146 average in 243 plate appearances, the lowest average by a position player with that many plate appearances since 1904 and the fifth-worst in baseball history.
"When you're 20, 21, 22-years-old and in the LA Times and Baseball America, you have all the fans in the world saying, 'We're waiting on Brandon Wood. When is he going to get here?' When I didn't live up to the build up and excitement it gave me more motivation to work my tail off to be what everyone thought I would be, and more so."
For every Buster Posey and Stephen Strasburg who meet or even exceed their hype, there are highly-touted minor league players, like Wood, who take longer than expected to reach their potential. The fast-track to major league stardom is a road less taken. More often than not highly-ranked prospects experience growing pains, especially when the spotlight is on early in their careers. Living up to expectations set by prospect rankings, fans and the front office can be frustrating for some. It's all the more puzzling when a prospect excels in the minors but can't seem to piece it together on the big league stage. If their name is called to join the big league club, and they get off to a poor start, a ticket straight back to the minors usually follows.
Former top Dodgers prospect Andy LaRoche has had trouble translating his talent to the major league level. Once rated the 19th overall prospect in 2006 and 2007 by Baseball America, LaRoche has fumbled each of his opportunities in the pros since his call up in 2007.
"I'm not worried about what the people write or people say. I'm worried about my own expectations," LaRoche said. "I fell short of those expectations tremendously the last few years. It's been frustrating. I've been trying to do too much, instead of just staying relaxed and playing the way I have all throughout the minor leagues."
LaRoche was supposed to replace aging veteran Nomar Garciaparra as the Dodgers next third baseman in 2008. He had hit .309/.399/.589 and clubbed 18 home runs the year before in Triple-A and he entered camp more confident than ever.
"That was the first spring training I felt like it was my job," LaRoche said. "I felt like I was going to win that job and be the Opening Day third baseman for the Dodgers."
But his hopes came shattering down, along with the ligament in his right thumb. He was out three months to start the season. Blake DeWitt eventually stepped in and took his job and in the limited action LaRoche saw, he posted terrible numbers: a .203 average and a .313 on-base percentage. He was shipped at the trade deadline that year to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a trade that brought Manny Ramirez to Los Angeles. But even on the lowly Pirates, where playing time was at a premium, LaRoche could not figure out major league pitching. He batted just .152 with Pittsburgh during the rest of the '08 season, and as a full time starter in 2009, he hit a meager .258 and belted only 12 home runs with 64 RBIs. Despite batting .333 in the months of March and April in 2010, LaRoche regressed again, posting a .168 average the rest of the season. This offseason the 27-year-old was given a minor league deal by the Oakland A's. LaRoche will not be under as much scrutiny in Oakland, but he will be settling for a roster spot instead of competing for a starting position.
"I can't sit here and dwell on the past and mope around and complain about the seasons I've had," LaRoche said. "It's a great chance here [in Oakland] to start over with a clean slate. I'm coming in as a 'nobody' without any pressure at all but to play and have fun and try to win a job."
Being traded for a proven player like Manny Ramirez adds to the mounting expectations a top prospect carries. Cleveland Indians outfielder Matt LaPorta, once traded for CC Sabathia in 2008, is hoping to prove to the Indians front office that they profited on their return investment.
"This year is a great opportunity to make the ball club and be the guy they traded CC for," LaPorta said. "I still think the Indians believe in me and they know what they traded for and now it's time to show them the guy I've been throughout my career."
LaPorta was the number seven overall pick by the Brewers in the 2007 Draft, selected before fellow outfielder Jason Heyward. LaPorta rocketed through the minor league system since being traded to Cleveland but last season, struggled on the major league level. He tallied 425 plate appearances but only managed to hit .221. However, LaPorta showed glimpses of power with 12 home runs and this spring training he has a legitimate chance to earn a starting position. LaPorta hopes to capitalize now that he's with a new club, is no longer under the microscope of ranking systems, or has to follow in the footsteps of Ryan Braun, the All-Star Brewers outfielder whose presence in Milwaukee helped make him expendable in the Sabathia trade.
"I'm not in the spotlight anymore," LaPorta said. "There are younger guys that are up-and-coming prospects. That time in my life has passed and now it's time for me to focus and become that everyday player."
Despite LaPorta's enthusiasm, former top prospects like Wood and LaRoche have shown that taking advantage of such an opportunity is easier said than done. Here are five other top prospects that might have crept out of the spotlight but are still looking to live up to their potential.
Every season heading into spring training, it seems as if Homer Bailey has been the perennial fifth starter for the Cincinnati Reds. Bailey debuted as the 48th overall prospect by Baseball America back in 2005 and was ranked in the top 10 in both 2007 and 2008. The flamethrower was called up to the big leagues in 2007 but inconsistency and an inability to find the strike zone have haunted him. In 2008 he went 0-6 with a 7.93 ERA in eight major league starts. An up-and-down 2009 campaign and an injury plagued 2010 season has the once "can't-miss" prospect competing yet again this spring with Mike Leake and Travis Wood for the final rotation spots.
Jordan Schafer sure knows how to make an entrance. Despite never playing in a league higher than Double-A, Schafer debuted in 2009 as the starting centerfielder for the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day. He became the 99th player at the time to hit a home run in his first major league at-bat. Comparisons to Andruw Jones were flying and fantasy baseball players were scrambling to pick up the next Braves outfield prospect. Two months later, after striking out 63 times in 167 at-bats, Schafer was optioned to Triple-A. He has yet to make it back to the big-leagues.
No one can blame the Kansas City Royals for taking Alex Gordon with the second overall pick in the 2005 MLB Draft. Despite being selected ahead of infielders Ryan Zimmerman, Troy Tulowitzki, and then-third baseman Ryan Braun, all signs pointed to stardom for Gordon after his junior year at Nebraska. He won a bevy of college player of the year awards including the Golden Spikes Award and was later named the second best overall prospect by Baseball America. He hit 15 and 16 home runs respectively in his first two major league seasons in 2007 and 2008 but also whiffed 137 and 120 times. His lack of patience at the plate and his inability to stay healthy on the big league level has him labeled as an underachiever. The Royals front office and fans still have faith in Gordon but those lofty expectations no longer seem realistic.
The man with the longest last name in major league history has had little success at the plate in the pros. Saltalamacchia had the unfortunate luck of being stuck behind Brian McCann in Atlanta but was traded to the Texas Rangers in 2007 for Mark Teixeira. With his chance to shine, Saltalamacchia had a modest first full season, hitting .260 with 11 homers and 33 RBIs in 329 plate appearances. Little did Saltalamacchia know that 2007 would be his best season to date. In 2009 he regressed to .233 and struck out 97 times in just 310 plate appearances. He was subsequently traded to Boston last year but will be given yet another shot to start in the majors this season.
Despite his offensive struggles the past few seasons with the Florida Marlins, many forget that Cameron Maybin is still only 23 years old. However, Maybin has given little reason to not write him off, regardless of his age. Maybin was drafted straight out of high school by the Detroit Tigers in 2005 and the five-tool prospect made his debut in the big leagues in 2007. In the second game of his career, the former 10th overall pick of the 2005 draft hit a long home run at Yankee Stadium off of Roger Clemens. That offseason, Florida demanded he be included in package that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit. Maybin was rated the sixth best prospect in 2007 and 2008, projected higher than the likes of Evan Longoria and Tim Lincecum. He won the starting centerfield job out of camp in 2009, but was sent down to Triple-A by May thanks to a .202 batting average, just six extra base hits, and only one stolen base. Last season was no different for Maybin. He couldn't make enough contact at the plate and showed no signs of power, finishing with a .234 average, 92 strikeouts and just eight home runs in 322 plate appearances. The Marlins dealt Maybin to the San Diego Padres this past winter, which could be a good change of scenery for him now that he is no longer under the pressure of filling Cabrera's shoes in Florida.