Hassell, Wood trying to ignore hype, focus on present

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – As the 67 players in big league camp retreat to the clubhouse following their daily workout here, they pass by another group of players in Nationals uniforms. They are younger, less experienced, though not necessarily less noticeable.

The organization’s top prospects who reported early for spring training ahead of the rank-and-file minor leaguers who will arrive in a few weeks are a physically impressive group. This is particularly obvious in the outfield, where James Wood, Robert Hassell III, Elijah Green and Cristhian Vaquero strike an imposing presence.

Add Jeremy De La Rosa (already in major league camp after he was added to the 40-man roster over the winter) to the mix, and the Nationals have every reason to believe they’ve got at least three future outfield studs in their farm system right now.

For these young players, the opportunity to work out alongside each other this spring is superseded only by the possibility of playing alongside each other in D.C. someday down the road.

“It’s exciting, for sure,” the 6-foot-7 Wood said Sunday. “I just want to get up there and keep doing my thing. And hopefully that becomes reality pretty soon.”

There are no guarantees, of course. Not every highly ranked prospect actually pans out, something the Nationals should know all too well. But anyone looking for reason to be optimistic about the franchise’s long-term chances of returning to contention need look no farther than the outfield at minor league camp here this spring.

“I just think you’ve got yourself a cluster of high-end physical, physically gifted, mentally strong and terrific work ethics,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “And when you put that stuff in a group setting, and you get that competition gene going with all these big-time athletic prospects, I think you see something special happen.”

Six of the Nationals’ top-10 prospects (according to Baseball America) are outfielders, including the top three of Wood and Hassell (both acquired from the Padres in last summer’s Juan Soto trade) and Elijah Green (last summer’s first-round pick). None are big-league-ready at this point, and Wood and Green especially have a long path to go to climb the organizational ladder.

Hassell, though, could conceivably make his major league debut by season’s end. The 21-year-old, left-handed hitter made it to Double-A last year and was set to play in the Arizona Fall League before a lingering hamate injury in his wrist became too painful for him to continue. He had surgery to remove that tiny bone (common for baseball players and golfers due to the repetitive swinging action they take every day) and is fully healed now.

“When I got back into the groove of things, it didn’t take long,” he said. “The surgery went good. The hand felt good, really from the time they told me I could swing. I took it easy at first. It delayed (my offseason program) a bit, but I don’t really feel like I missed any steps.”

Hassell, who was slashing .299/.379/.467 for the Padres’ Single-A affiliate before the trade, saw his batting average slip to .219 in 37 games with Single-A Wilmington and Double-A Harrisburg to end the season, though he admits now his wrist was already bothering him and likely led to some of his subpar results.

His hitting skills, including a natural ability to drive the ball to the opposite field, remain the envy of everyone else in the farm system. Now he’s looking to add power to his stroke, hoping a healthy wrist and more use of his legs will lead to more barreled-up balls pulled to right field.

If he can do that in Harrisburg, Hassell could earn a promotion to Triple-A Rochester sometime this summer, which could lead to a final promotion to Nationals Park before season’s end, though he was careful not to say he expects it when asked about the possibility of making his MLB debut in 2023.

“You know, I want it to be as soon as possible. But it’s up to me,” he said. “I’ve got to put in the work. I’ve got to perform. This is going to be my third year now in the minor leagues. I’m ready to do whatever I can do to get up there.”

Wood, 20, won’t be knocking on that door this year. But if he keeps performing like he did last year at low Single-A (.313/.420/.536) his path up the organizational ladder will be a quick one.

Perhaps no prospect in baseball turned more heads in the last 12 months than the massive Wood, who leapfrogged Hassell in organizational rankings and is approaching top-10 status in the entire sport.

“Just looking at James, he’s a freak athlete,” Hassell said. “Huge guy. He’s going to be great to watch, fun to watch. If you like seeing balls hit 120 mph off the bat all the time, that’s your guy.”

The soft-spoken Wood, who grew up in Montgomery County watching Nationals games on MASN, could easily get caught up in the hype. But he’s been careful not to let himself think too far down the road.

“I’m pretty good at staying in the present in general,” he said. “So, I don’t know. I think a lot of people can get caught up in the future, but I think I kind of realized that I don’t really have the privilege to worry about any of that until I get there. So, got to keep working and all that, just keep grinding, and hopefully get there pretty soon.”

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