The past several years, there has been no team in baseball better at reclamation projects than the Tampa Bay Rays. From fireballing late-inning relievers to high-average first basemen, it seems like every single season the Rays find a couple players other teams had ignored and turned them into key pieces of their ballclub. But is there a point of no return where even the Rays won’t consider trying to save a player? If there is, Brandon Wood is teetering on the edge. Might the Rays be willing to give him a chance?
The thing about Wood, still only 28, is that through it all he has remained a solid defensive shortstop, and his shortcomings at the plate have led to experience at the other three infield positions along with left field. He features the type of versatility that the Rays can’t get enough of, and doesn’t he have to remind you of Ben Zobrist a little bit? Zobrist came to the major leagues as a shortstop, failed to hit, and then broke out at age 28 when he returned to the major leagues as a utility player. Who says that Wood can’t do the same thing? Well, for starters, Wood and Zobrist have several key differences between them. Wood was one of the top prospects in all of baseball before becoming a bust while Zobrist was never really much of a prospect. More importantly from a practical standpoint, Zobrist has always stood out for his tremendous plate discipline while Wood has become known for his lack of it. Aside from his big league cameos in 2006 and 2007, Zobrist has never failed to walk at least half as much as he has struck out in any professional season at any level. No matter how small the sample size, Wood has never walked as much as half the amount of the times he has struck out in any season at any level. In addition, Zobrist features above-average speed and solid instincts on the basepaths while Wood has never been much of a threat to run, and Zobrist is a switch-hitter while Wood bats right-handed. Zobrist ended up back on the Rays’ roster even after failed stints in 2006 and 2007 but his skill-set made him extremely valuable in a utility role even if he wasn’t going to hit a lot. Wood doesn’t have those advantages, which is the reason why he has always needed to be at least an hitter to be worthy of a major league roster spot.
Zobrist broke through when the Rays opened up his stance, allowing him to tap into his power much more than before. With Wood, the Rays would basically be trying to do the exact opposite. At his peak, Wood was right up there for the most power in major league baseball. Back in 2005, when he was 20 year old at High-A, Wood drilled 43 home runs, making him the only player in American minor league baseball to crack 40. He hit 5 more than the second place player and 13 more than the closest player his age or younger (Billy Butler). With prolific bat speed and tremendous lift in his swing, Wood seemed to have what it took to be a significant power threat in the major leagues. But Wood was held back by poor patience and pitch recognition, expanding his zone too often and flailing at too many breaking balls. The Rays would be trying to get Wood to be less aggressive at the plate knowing that his power will come out naturally even if he’s not swinging for the fences every time. However, four other teams have tried to do that now–the Pirates, the Rockies, the Royals, and the Orioles–and the results have been disastrous. Wood has been taking a few more pitches, but he’s still not walking enough and his power has totally evaporated. Is there any chance the Rays could generate different results?
If the Rays sign Wood, they would essentially be starting over with him in terms of his approach at the plate. What Wood needs is not another year letting his confidence wane at Triple-A but some time with a hitting instructor totally remaking himself. After he totally lost the strike zone, the Rays sent Alex Torres down to the GCL Rays so he could work with pitching instructor Marty DeMerritt. DeMerritt managed to turn Torres’ entire career around, and now he’s a weapon for the Rays out of the bullpen. If the Rays have a hitting version of DeMerritt, what they should do is send Wood down to him for at least a couple months to try to figure out what they can do to help him harness his potential. But is Wood willing to sacrifice his pride and go down to Rookie ball if that’s what it takes for him to turn his career around?
If the Rays are going to sign Wood, they have to be sure of two things: first off, that he is salvageable, and secondly, that he’s motivated to make sure this isn’t the way his story ends. There’s a real chance that either of those may not be the case, and the Rays may very well let Wood go by without a second thought. Wood is a reclamation project the likes of which the Rays have never undertaken. But the risk is negligible while the potential reward could still be impressive, and if there’s anyone that could turn Brandon Wood into a serviceable major league player, it’s the Rays.