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Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Chance of a lifetime

By Mark Saxon

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Think back to your first day of high school, if you can stomach it.

Now, take that toxic mix of nerves, self-doubt and adrenaline and multiply it by three. That gives you an idea what it's like for a 20-year-old minor-leaguer at his first big league camp.

Brandon Wood was lucky enough to buddy up to an upperclassman with a combination of clout and empathy. He was seated next to veteran outfielder Darin Erstad. When Erstad was with the Angels, few doubted who ran the clubhouse. When the team was struggling, Erstad's booming voice periodically could be heard echoing off the clubhouse walls.

Erstad made Wood jump through a few hoops that spring. He teased him about the 43 home runs he had hit the season before at Single-A Rancho Cucamonga, a Cal League record. He made him learn the names of each of the newspaper beat writers covering the team, and this was in an era before contraction and layoffs. Half a dozen people covered the team on a daily basis.

"He was like, 'You've got to get to know these people, because they're here for you,'" Wood recalled.

Then there was the day that spring when Wood asked Erstad who the husky, unshaven guy in the shorts and T-shirt was.

"He's like, 'What?'" Wood said.

Brandon Wood
Brandon Wood seems poised to take over the third base job with Chone Figgins out of the picture.

Erstad walked over to Troy Percival, who had just retired, and asked the team's all-time saves leader to walk across the room and introduce himself to the youngster.

"I wanted to go hide in my locker," Wood said. "I was like, 'Oh man, I can't ask questions like that anymore.' Now, every time I see Percy, he's like, 'Hey, I'm Troy Percival.' It was a good learning lesson."

It wasn't the only lesson Wood picked up in the spring of 2006. Erstad doled out a tip per day. It may sound trivial, but when you're desperate to fit in, learning that you need to have your spikes on before the start of the morning meeting is a crucial piece of information.

The way Wood reflected on that spring the other day, he sounded like an old-timer recalling the summer of '49. Maybe that's what happens when you're the perpetual prospect. You start to feel like a veteran even before you've left a footprint in the major leagues.

After three straight seasons stymied by a glut of infielders above him, Wood, 24, finally sees a path to what once seemed his birthright.

The Angels might have made a slightly more energetic push to re-sign Chone Figgins if they didn't think it was Wood's time. So, now they get to find out what the kid with the effortless power, the smooth hands and the propensity to swing and miss can do with an opportunity.

He'll get first crack at playing third base, but Maicer Izturis will be poised to unseat him if he stumbles.

"We do need production from that spot," manager Mike Scioscia said the other day. "If we have to ease off a bit, if he's pressing, we'll maybe let him run with some things. He'll get enough playing time to contribute and continue to develop."

This chance for Wood is partly the result of the Angels' faith in him and partly thanks to baseball's collective bargaining agreement. Wood is out of options, meaning the Angels probably would lose him to another team if he doesn't make their 25-man roster on Opening Day.

Angels fans have been anxious to see what Wood can do since that 2005 season, one of the most prolific in minor league history. In addition to the record number of home runs, Wood batted .321 and drove in 115 runs in 130 games. He also struck out 128 times.

Wood has concentrated on cutting down his strikeouts and he has gradually chipped away at them. Still, his production in the major leagues thus far has been sporadic, to put it nicely. He has a .192 career average with seven home runs in 224 at-bats since 2007. Wood's playing time has come in fits and starts. People still wonder how productive he can be if he's left alone for 400 at-bats. Will Scioscia risk it with the Angels expected to be tested by an improved division?

"You just hope he gets the chance and doesn't put any extra pressure on himself," Angels catcher Mike Napoli said. "He knows how to play the game. He sees what's ahead of him and he wants to go get it. I think it's going to be awesome seeing him succeed."

Whether it's Wood or Izturis at third, the Angels should continue to have one of the most impermeable left sides in baseball. Wood is a converted shortstop with excellent range, a steady arm and good instincts. Scioscia said he has Gold Glove potential at third. Erick Aybar goes into his second full season already having built a reputation for dazzling shortstop play.

A year ago, Wood entered spring training thinking he had an excellent shot at making the team. As March advanced, he began looking around the room and doing a little mental math. He saw Aybar, Izturis, Figgins, Howie Kendrick and Kendry Morales and realized none of those guys was budging. That left him to collect yet another one-way ticket to Salt Lake City.

For once, he can have his mail sent to Anaheim this April. It's unclear whether it will be a permanent address, however, and he realizes it's up to him.

"I think there's a difference between being a prospect and coming into camp with people going, 'All right, this guy's supposed to be the everyday third baseman,'" Wood said. "There's some more pressure in that."

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for