They were peers entering the 2006 season, up-and-coming stars as so dubbed by Baseball America in its annual ranking of the game’s top 100 prospects.
Outfielder Delmon Young was No. 1 on that list; now 23, he started for Tampa Bay in 2007 and Minnesota in 2008. Outfielder Justin Upton was No. 2; he cracked Arizona’s starting lineup last season at age 21.
Outfielder Jeremy Hermida was No. 4; he is beginning his third season as a starter at Florida. Stephen Drew was No. 5; he is beginning his third season as Arizona’s starting shortstop.
Four of the next five players -- Francisco Liriano, Chad Billingsley, Justin Verlander and Matt Cain -- are among the top young pitchers in the game. Prince Fielder, No. 11, slugged 50 homers for Milwaukee in 2007.
“Wow, that’s quite a list,” Angels infielder Brandon Wood said, perusing the names. “Pretty amazing.”
Except for the guy at No. 3, one Brandon Wood, whose resume -- just 68 big-league games, a .191 average in 183 at-bats, six homers, 16 runs batted in, 55 strikeouts, four walks -- pales in comparison.
The Angels remain confident that Wood, the 23rd overall pick in the 2003 draft, will develop into the player they envisioned after he hit .321 with 43 home runs, 51 doubles and 115 RBIs at Class-A Rancho Cucamonga in 2005.
But Wood’s performance hasn’t matched that potential, and he slipped in Baseball America’s rankings, to No. 8 in 2007 and No. 16 in 2008.
Wood, who turned 24 on Monday, now has too many major league at-bats to qualify for the list this winter and is still not old enough to be considered a bust.
But the top 11 players on that 2006 list range in age from 21 to 25 with the exception of Verlander (26), so it is not a stretch to think a 24-year-old with Wood’s pedigree should be in the big leagues by now.
“Sometimes it takes a little longer for players to get it, but once they do they have long careers, and that’s what our expectations are for Brandon,” Angels General Manager Tony Reagins said.
“He’s still maturing, but the potential for him is very exciting. He just has to put it together, mentally and physically. From a defensive standpoint, we’re not concerned.”
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Wood can play a big league-caliber shortstop and third base, but he has been limited by his inability to make consistent contact and hit off-speed pitches. Though he hit .276 with 25 homers and 83 RBIs in 118 games at double-A Arkansas in 2006, Wood led the Texas League with 149 strikeouts.
He hit .272 with 23 homers and 77 RBIs at triple-A Salt Lake in 2007 but struck out 120 times. He remained at Salt Lake for much of 2008, batting .296 with 31 homers, 84 RBIs and 104 strikeouts.
In a brief big league stint filling in for injured third baseman Chone Figgins last May and June, Wood appeared overmatched, batting .114 with 10 strikeouts in 11 games.
But some advice from batting instructor Mickey Hatcher, who suggested Wood drop his hands slightly so he could better reach those down-and-away pitches, may have been the tonic for Wood’s woes. Hatcher also stressed looking for one pitch to drive and laying off pitches he couldn’t hit hard.
Wood took those adjustments back to Salt Lake, and when shortstops Maicer Izturis and Erick Aybar suffered injuries in August, Wood was recalled and got his first extended stretch of regular playing time.
The result: a .263 batting average with four homers in 19 games. He struck out 19 times, but also hit two homers on off-speed pitches and had several opposite-field hits.
“The more comfortable he got,” Reagins said, “the better at-bats he took.”
And that, in turn, fueled Wood’s confidence.
“I was getting some hits, playing some defense, helping the team -- I feel I had a good approach that can be successful at this level,” Wood said. “It was a good chance to prove to myself that I can play in the big leagues.”
Wood is not in a land of opportunity, though. Aybar and Izturis are expected to share time at shortstop, and Figgins, the team’s leadoff hitter, appears to be a lock at third.
There are no plans to move Wood to first or the outfield, so barring injury the Angels will probably have to decide whether to keep Wood on the bench or send him to Salt Lake to play every day.
“There would have to be enough at-bats for him to contribute and stay sharp and keep moving forward,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “We’re not going to keep a young guy on the bench to hit once every 10 days.”
Had Wood been drafted by a team such as Tampa Bay, Florida or Minnesota, clubs in perennial youth movements, he might have a big league job by now.
But the Angels are not rebuilding. They’ve won four of the last five American League West titles and have World Series aspirations.
“When Arte [Moreno] took over, his expectations are to win a ring,” Wood said. “There are so many great players in this clubhouse, they don’t have to give a young kid 500 at-bats. I understand this is how it works.”
And he is not deterred.
“There are different times for different people,” Wood said, alluding to Baseball America’s 2006 prospect list. “I understand the Angels’ philosophy, and I still want to be in red and play in that stadium, because you’re not going to find a better place.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The top 12 players from Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect List entering the 2006 season:
1. Delmon Young: Twins LF hit .290 with 69 RBIs in 2008.
2. Justin Upton: Arizona RF had 15 homers, 42 RBIs in ’08.
3. Brandon Wood: Has .191 career average in 183 at-bats.
4. Jeremy Hermida: Marlins RF had 17 homers, 61 RBIs in ’08.
5. Stephen Drew: Arizona SS had 21 homers, 67 RBIs in ’08.
6. Francisco Liriano: Twins pitcher was All-Star in 2006.
7. Chad Billingsley: Dodgers pitcher had 16 wins, 3.14 ERA in ’08.
8. Justin Verlander: Tigers pitcher was 35-15 in 2006-07.
9. Lastings Milledge: Nationals CF had 14 homers, 61 RBIs in ’08.
10. Matt Cain: Giants pitcher had 3.76 ERA, 186 strikeouts in ’08.
11. Prince Fielder: Brewers 1B averaging 37 homers since 2006.
12. Howie Kendrick: Angels 2B has .306 average in three seasons.
-- Mike DiGiovanna