Prospects Gone Astray: Brandon Wood Edition

The San Diego Padres signed shortstop Brandon Wood this January. The now 29-year-old Wood hit .226/.262/.329 in 2013, splitting time between Triple-A Omaha (KC) and Norfolk (KC). He was supposed to be inking a monster free agent contract right around this time but, instead, he signed one of those deals that, were in printed in an actual, physical paper, would be strategically placed somewhere at the bottom of a sidebar in super-small font. So, don’t feel bad if you missed it. Wood isn’t much of a prospect these days.

It wasn’t that long ago that Wood was climbing the heights of the prospect charts in the form of a dazzling, all-around middle infielder with a can’t-miss power bat. A high school shortstop out of Arizona, he was taken in the first-round of the 2003 draft by the Los Angeles Angels. In Wood’s draft write-up, Baseball America lauded his slick-fielding at short and improved power stroke, noting a new conditioning regimen that led to a better physique and a senior year breakout.

Wood’s early professional career progressed as you might expect, as he hit .288/.348/.471 as an 18-year old in his rookie ball debut, showing the kind of power that warranted first-round draft status. He followed up that campaign with a less-than-stellar tour of Single-A, slashing .251/.322/.404 in the Midwest League. Still, the positive signals were aplenty: 46 extra base hits in 535 plate appearances (from a shortstop, no less), 21 stolen bases, and an OPS that was better than the league average as a 19-year-old (the average age for the MWL, in 2004, was nearly 22).

Then 2005 happened. The combination of Wood’s natural power stroke, young hurlers, and the hitter-friendly California League led to an all-out assault on pitching, as he blasted 43 home runs (and 51 doubles!) in 130 games for Rancho Cucamonga. Wood slashed his way to a .321/.383/.672 line in 595 High-A plate appearances that year, cementing himself as one of the most exciting prospects in the game. His 2005 tour de force vaulted Wood up prospect lists faster than imaginable; he jumped up 80 spots on Baseball America’s annual top 100, from 83rd overall in 2005 all the way up to third in the pre-2006 rankings, ahead of future stars like Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, Ryan Zimmerman, and Troy Tulowitzki. As an encore to the 2005 regular season, Wood pummeled 14 more home runs in the Arizona Fall League (including four in one game) in just 29 games, setting an AFL record for round-trippers.

The 2006 Baseball America Prospect Handbook includes, as you might expect, a glowing report on Wood:

Wood’s package of power, hitting, all-around defensive skills, and championship-caliber makeup prompted one high Class A California League manager to dub him the next Cal Ripken Jr. Wood is an aggressive hitter who attacks pitches with outstanding bat speed while hitting from a slightly open stance. … Wood’s swing has leverage that elicits shots with backspin, loft and plenty of carry. … Wood should develop into a perennial all-star infielder at either shortstop or third base.

The Baseball Prospectus 2006 annual hedged its bet slightly on Wood, noting that the 2005 outburst was his first exceptional season, that he hadn’t proven himself at the higher minor league levels, and that the glove might not stick at short. Despite that, BP still ranked Wood 6th overall and acknowledged his Cal League triumph as “one of the greatest campaigns in the recent annals of the minor leagues.” (In fairness, Baseball America also noted some shortcomings in Wood’s game, including the frequency of his swing-and-miss tendencies and the likelihood that his glove would be forced to third.)

Wood returned to earth in 2006, as his first test with Double-A pitching brought on solid but unspectacular results. He more than held his own by hitting .276/.355/.552 while popping another 71 extra base hits in 118 games, and he generally remained a top 10 talent and sure-fire future major league mainstay.

The descent of Wood from a top prospect to the baseball periphery was a slower one than you might have guessed. He stumbled in 2007, posting a .835 OPS in Triple-A while hitting .152 in his big league cup of coffee, but Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus still ranked him as the 16th and 38th best prospect in the game, respectively. Wood conquered Triple-A in 2008 by posting a .296/.375/.595 line, but struggled to shows any signs of life in an extended major league look, hitting .200/.224/.327 in 157 PAs. It was more of the same in 2009, as he OPSed .910 in Triple-A but just .559 in a brief major league look-see.

Prior to the 2010 season, Wood’s prospect star was still shining, if now only faintly. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus’ former go-to prospector (he’s now the Houston Astros director of pro scouting), ranked Wood as the Angels No. 1 top 25 and under talent, ahead of Mike Trout (yeah, that Mike Trout) and … Hank Conger. (Okay, outside of Trout that was a weak crop of 25 and unders). Goldstein:

I might be the only Brandon Wood believer still out there, and at this point I’m almost rooting for a trade or Chone Figgins signing elsewhere to finally give him an unfettered opportunity to produce. He still has star potential.

Wood’s prospect star officially died out in 2010 when he hit .146/.174/.208 in 243 major league plate appearances, striking out 71 times and drawing just six walks. From July 11th to the end of his 2010 season Wood hit .071/.133/143 in 63 plate appearances, striking out 33 percent of the time while walking twice, and effectively putting an end to his Angels career. Wood was selected off waivers early in the 2011 season and he did rebound somewhat to post a more respectable .220/.277/.347 line, but that was the last time he’s seen the big leagues.

He’s bounced from organization to organization since, spending time with the Triple-A affiliates of Colorado, Kansas City, and Baltimore. Last year, as mentioned earlier, he bottomed out with a .591 minor league OPS.

Brandon Wood’s deficiencies finally got the best of him as he climbed the minor league ladder. Deficiencies like his inability to control the strike zone and lay off pitchers’ pitches, his propensity to whiff, his struggles with pitch recognition, and the holes in his swing. All issues that were easy to gloss over for a 20-year-old destroying the Cal League became glaringly obvious in retrospect.

The Padres didn’t sign Wood with any realistic hope that he would reclaim the swing that made him a must-see prospect in the mid-2000s. They didn’t even offer him an invitation to spring training. At this point, Wood is just organizational filler for a team that has a dearth of shortstops and third basemen in the upper minors. He’ll most likely compete with the likes of Alberto Gonzalez and Jake Lemmerman for Triple-A playing time on the left side of the infield, and probably make his way on to another organization sooner than later.

This isn’t the script that Brandon Wood wrote for his professional baseball career when he signed with the Angels for $1.3 million back in 2003, or when he was ranked as the 5th best prospect in the Midwest League as a 19-year-old dual-threat shortstop, or as he was crushing another tape-measure shot in his epic Cal League romp. In the end, like most baseball mortals, Wood wasn’t quite good enough to adjust to the greatest pitching the world has to offer. We can wrap up Wood’s career as fans and analysts of the game, as a cautionary tale to the over-hyping of young prospects, and try to learn some type of overarching lesson as we walk away, still shaking our collective head at Wood’s ultimate failure … damn he should have been good.

For Wood, though, failure is contextual. While he didn’t turn into the power-hitting, gold glove shortstop of our best laid plans, he was good enough to post a .278/.342/.509 minor league line, play in 272 major league games, and record one of the most memorable (if Cal League-enhanced) prospect seasons in history. That’s not a bad way to fail, and it isn’t such a bad legacy to have to live with.

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