James Wood develops into an elite prospect

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – James Wood has surpassed expectations by becoming one of the top prospects in baseball since entering professional baseball in 2021. The 20-year-old recorded a .956 OPS or better in each of his first two pro seasons in the San Diego Padres organization, and ranked as the 15th-best prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline.

But the future for Wood took an unexpected turn last year. The Washington Nationals acquired him as the centerpiece of the Juan Soto trade before last year’s trade deadline. The Nationals and Soto didn’t agree on a long-term agreement, resulting in them trading him and starting a rebuild centered around Wood, a native of Rockville, Maryland.

“It really didn’t take too long to get comfortable with the guys once I got to Fredericksburg (Nationals Class A affiliate),” Wood said. “But obviously, it was a whole other adjustment getting back to the complex, getting to know all of the guys there.

“There was a lot of good coming back to the East Coast, and a lot of things I had to get used to, but obviously, being close to home helped a lot. It is nice to have family and friends come out to games as well.”

Being traded in the middle of the season comes with challenges, such as leaving familiar surroundings and starting over in a new environment. For Wood, it meant getting to know a new coaching staff and player development team. The mutual goal for each side is building off the foundation he cultivated since starting his pro career.

“Things have been going great,” Wood said. “I really like my teammates and the coaching staff. It is great to build a relationship with these guys and just get to work. Meeting a lot of new faces. There’s a whole lot of information to be gained from them.”

Another challenge Wood will face as his career progresses is handling the outside expectations. The Nationals have great aspirations for their rebuilding effort, centered on Wood, whom most rank as the organization’s top prospect.

“I don’t try to reinvent the wheel,” Wood said. “I just go out there every day trying to be prepared and leave everything out there. It is nice to know the organization values me, but it means I still have to keep working. And I got a long way to go.”

Wood’s journey to becoming an elite prospect began at IMG Academy. As a prep star, he formed a strong bond with hitting instructor John Ford-Griffin, who assisted him in improving his swing mechanics and maintaining a balanced approach at the plate.

Ford-Griffin was no stranger to the path to becoming a big-league prospect. The New York Yankees selected Ford-Griffin in the first round of the 2001 MLB draft.

“(John Ford-Griffin) has helped a ton. I learned a lot from him,” Wood said. “Whether it was the ins and outs of my swing or just the ins and outs of baseball. He has been a huge help in my career. I think I always had the chip on my shoulder, but being around guys who have gone through the stuff I’m going through right now is reassuring, for sure.”

The Padres selected Wood in the second round of the 2021 draft, signing him for $2.6 million. The Padres saw his tools and potential as worth the investment.

Wood justified their confidence, hitting .372/.465/.535 with a 1.000 OPS in the Arizona Complex League in his first pro season. He also complimented his walk rate and power output with stellar baserunning, swiping 20 bases in 76 games between the Padres and Nationals organizations in 2022.

Wood, who is 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, possesses remarkable physical qualities and surprising quickness for a player his size. He can drive the ball to all fields with power and extension by keeping his arms in the rear of the zone, resulting in consistent hard contact.

He can also play all three outfield positions, with center field being his primary position. His superb instincts in the field bode well for the recent trend in baseball of taller players playing premium positions.

“I am just trying to refine a routine and keep working at that,” Wood said. “I’m comfortable playing all three (outfield positions). I spent time at all three during spring. I have mostly been playing center and trying to help my pitchers win games.”

Wood began this season at advanced Class A Wilmington. He recorded 11 hits in his first 23 at-bats, including his first career home run in mid-April. He wants to show growth in all aspects of play and the tools that have served him well in his career.

“I think all aspects of my game can continue to grow,” Wood said. “I think that is my main goal here. Just trying to get myself as ready as possible and learning how to approach the game each day.”

Gershon Rabinowitz
Gershon Rabinowitz
Gershon Rabinowitz is a reporter based in the New York market who has covered a variety of sporting events including the MLB draft, the 2016 World Baseball Classic, and Big Ten Hockey at Madison Square Garden. In 2013, he co-founded the website Baseball Essential and currently specializes in coverage of professional baseball and hockey.

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