Nats sticking to plan with Wood's promotion

It’s no longer a question of if. It’s a question of when James Wood will get the call to make his major league debut with the Nationals.

The way he’s been performing with Triple-A Rochester is starting to force the issue. In 31 games with the Red Wings, the big lefty bat is slashing .339/.444/.529 with a .973 OPS, 11 doubles, 14 RBIs, 23 walks to 30 strikeouts, eight stolen bases and four home runs, including two Wednesday afternoon.

How much longer can the Nats, who are sorely lacking power at the big league level, justify keeping him in the minors?

Well, they have a plan for their top prospect. And despite the numbers, they’re sticking to it.

“Look, I know he hit two home runs. And that's great. He's doing well,” manager Davey Martinez said before the second game of the Beltway Series against the Orioles. “But there is a plan. And we're gonna do everything we can to stick to that plan. We really are.”

Wood performed well in spring training, sticking around late while pushing for a spot on the Opening Day roster. But the outfield was crowded with minor league signees Jesse Winker and Eddie Rosario making the team. Plus, Wood had never played in Triple-A before this season, striking out 173 times between High-A Wilmington and Double-A Harrisburg last year.

So the Nats have some more boxes the 21-year-old has to check before making his way to Washington.

“He needs to get a bunch of at-bats,” Martinez said. “He needs to learn some different things. We want him to get better against left-handed pitching. Want him to understand the baserunning stuff. All that stuff. He's striking out 33 percent of the time against lefties, so I really want him to work on that.”

There was also a good reminder recently about the negatives of bringing up a top prospect before he's ready. Just north up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the Orioles, playing here tonight, promoted baseball's top prospect Jackson Holliday to make his major league debut on April 10. In 10 games, he went 2-for-34 (.059) with one RBI, two walks and 18 strikeouts. Holliday was sent back to the minors on April 26.

Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias then admitted the young shortstop was brought up too quickly and wasn't ready for the major leagues.

“We were the ones that have been moving him along this quickly and it was a little hiccup, and I think it’s probably the first one that he’s ever had and he’s ultimately going to be better off for it," Elias told Baltimore reporters. "But this is something that we did, and I think once it became clear to me that he would benefit better from going back to Triple-A, resetting his head first and foremost but also making some adjustments at the plate, wanted to do it as quickly as possible.”

The Nats roster as currently constructed is also an obstacle. The 40-man roster was full until yesterday when the team designated veteran reliever Matt Barnes for assignment. But even with an open spot, the active 26-man roster is still in a crunch.

Winker, Jacob Young and Eddie Rosario have been playing the outfield on a daily basis. Victor Robles returned from the injured list yesterday and figures to get some playing time in center and right field, either giving Young a breather or platooning with Rosario. Lane Thomas is expected back from the IL soon. Although he'll mostly play first base and serve as the designated hitter, Joey Gallo will return form the IL soon, too.

And in the minors, Alex Call and Stone Garrett are available on the 40-man for easy call-ups. (Though when it comes down to it, neither should block Wood from the majors when the Nats determine he’s ready.)

So finding a spot for Wood and giving him consistent playing time may be difficult for the Nats right now.

“I don't want to bring him up here and platoon him, that's for sure. He needs to play every day,” Martinez said. “But he's doing well, and this is part of the process. I can be honest with you: I don't want to be a fan. But if I was a fan, I can't wait till he comes up here, too. It's gonna be fun. But we gotta be smart about it.”

And Wood isn’t the only prospect Martinez is keeping his eye on. Robert Hassell III (.344 average, .897 OPS, International League Player of the Week last week), Brady House (.260 average, .828 OPS, five home runs) and Dylan Crews (.235 average, .747 OPS, 15 RBIs while dealing with a hamstring issue) have all played well with Harrisburg.

Even though Martinez got to know these prospects well during spring training and now reads their reports in-season, he tries not to watch too many of their games in fear of getting ahead of himself.

“I read all the reports and I don't really watch. I try not to watch the games per se,” Martinez said. “I don't want to get caught up in the whole (thing). Because like I said, you can become a fan. You want all these kids to do well and you want to see him come up here. But I got 26 guys up here I got to worry about. And that's my biggest focus right now. But I say this all the time: I'm really excited about our future. Really. When these guys all come up and they're playing the way we think they're capable of playing, you think we're exciting now? (laughs) We're gonna be really exciting.”

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