The best offensive season in the Minor Leagues -- at least the one MiLB.com has deemed the best in 2005 -- had a bit of a dubious start.
Angels shortstop prospect Brandon Wood couldn't hit this past spring. The 2003 first-round draft pick didn't seem to be showing any improvement from his first full season in which he hit .251 with 11 homers and 64 RBIs. Nothing the 20-year-old did in Tempe, Ariz., gave any hint of the award-winning season that was to come.
"I didn't hit any home runs in Spring Training," Wood said. "Actually, I didn't hit many balls out of the infield in Spring Training. We had a couple of practice games, I hit a couple of home runs and I started to feel my swing fall right into place right in the beginning of the season, which was exciting for me."
It was pretty exciting for his Rancho Cucamonga Quakes teammates, his organization and for fans of the Minor Leagues. Wood's swing never fell out of place all year as he
finished with a Minor League-high 43 homers. He also topped the Minors with 53 doubles, 101 extra-base hits and 370 total bases. He tied for second with 116 RBIs, third with 178 hits and fourth with 110 runs. Oh, and he hit .321, making him MiLB.com's choice for the overall -- as well as Class A -- Offensive Player of the Year.
Wood edged Delmon Young, Billy Butler, Justin Huber, Andy LaRoche and fellow Angels prospect Howie Kendrick. With all the numbers Wood piled up, it'd be easy to understand a certain self-confidence, maybe even an inflated ego. But Wood's reaction to winning the award tells fans all they need to know about the kind of person is inside the player: Wood would rather tout his teammate and fellow nominee than explore his own exploits.
"It's a great honor," Wood said. "It's been a fun season. I've met a lot of great people and had a lot of great teammates.
"Playing with Howie, I may have hit a few more home runs, but playing with him and watching him going out there and perform every day and hold a .370 or .360-something crazy batting average for his career so far, it's guys like that that are fun to play with. You hope you can move up the organization with them and hopefully you'll go to the big leagues -- your ultimate goal -- together."
That's just what the Angels have been hoping in having Wood and Kendrick play together for a couple of years, though Kendrick got moved to Double-A at midseason. Wood will be hard-pressed to repeat what he did in Rancho, with a four-game leap to Salt Lake thrown in for good measure.
Most sluggers are a little streaky, but Wood was a model of consistency. He hit nine homers in April, eight in May, nine in June and eight in both July and August before finishing it off with a September long ball. At the same time, his average per month never dipped below .294. Sure, he struck out 128 times in 130 games with the Quakes -- something Wood hopes to improve on as he moves up -- but who cares when the guy gets extra-base hits (.672 SLG with Rancho) nearly every other time up.
Wood didn't exactly cool off once the regular season ended. He hit a record 14 homers (and slugged .711) in the Arizona Fall League against a higher level of competition, proving that his huge power spike was not completely California League-induced. And while this is an offensive award, it should be noted Wood not only progressed by leaps and bounds with the bat, but his glove came along for the ride.
"I think it is a surprise," Angels scouting director Eddie Bane said. "I think we were shocked. You hope those things are going to happen. One of the things that's unusual, that doesn't even come into play because of the bat: There is an outside chance this kid can play shortstop. It was an automatic move to third base.
"But nobody thought he'd have this kind of power. Then following it up with leading the Fall League in homers. We thought he'd do OK there, but we didn't expect him do that well. Sometimes when good players start coming, no league is going to slow him down."
There are some who are itching to see how Wood might do in the highest league. That might be pushing it for a player just out of his teens who's barely played above A ball, but Wood's stupendous season has Angels fans excited for the possibility of a middle of the lineup hitter playing in the middle of the infield.
"I try not to look into the past or into the future too much, just play day-to-day," Wood said. "If you play hard in between the lines, you'll be where you want to be."
Where does Wood want to be right now? Well, adding up the numbers during the season and in the Fall League, he's got 57 homers. A quick trip to the Dominican or Mexico and he could make a run at Barry Bonds' record of 73.
"No, I don't think so," Wood laughed. "I haven't heard anything about Winter Ball. I'm going to do the USA Baseball thing and then take about a month off. Maybe I'll think
about baseball once or twice and then get ready to go."