BOWIE, Md. – One small step for a single prospect became a giant leap for the Nationals organization last weekend.
When James Wood was promoted from High-A Wilmington to Double-A Harrisburg on Sunday, on the surface level it could be seen as just a fast-rising prospect moving up another minor league level. But for the Nationals, it signified what the franchise is hoping to accomplish when it decided to undergo this rebuild in 2021 and fast track it by trading a major league superstar in Juan Soto last summer.
Wood was one of the five prospects the Nats received in the Soto trade with the Padres. Since joining the organization, he has risen as its top prospect and as one of the highest rated prospects in all of baseball.
Though he played well enough at the end of last season, Wood didn’t get a promotion to Wilmington, instead helping Single-A Fredericksburg on their postseason run. He started this season with the Blue Rocks, but only lasted 42 games, earning an early promotion on Memorial Day weekend.
The 20-year-old outfielder hit .293 with nine doubles, five triples, eight homers, 26 walks, 36 RBIs, eight stolen bases, a .392 on-base percentage and a .972 OPS with Wilmington.
“My manager, Mario (Lisson), he brought me in the office after and kind of just gave me a congrats,” Wood said of his promotion Tuesday ahead of Harrisburg’s series against Bowie (Orioles). “It was sort of a lot going on at that moment, so it was pretty cool. Just sort of bittersweet, obviously had to say goodbye to all those coaches. But there's a lot of good news going around. So it was pretty exciting.”
What is very exciting for the Nationals (and their fans) is the fact that Wood now joins Robert Hassell III, another top prospect from the Soto deal, in the Senators outfield.
Hassell actually had a day off when Wood made his Double-A debut Sunday against Reading (Phillies), so this week against the Baysox is the first time the two outfielders have been on the same team with an official affiliate.
“I played with him a little bit in spring, a little bit in instructs,” Wood said of playing with Hassell. “But this is the first time really officially like a full season being on the same team with him. So it's a lot to look forward to. I'm really excited for it.”
“Awesome. Yeah, it's gonna be fun,” Hassell said. “First time I'm playing with him in affiliate ball. So yeah, definitely fun. And I think we can take over the outfield out there, obviously with whoever else is out there as well. The outfield looks good, I think. And obviously him in the lineup is definitely a big threat. So happy to have him.”
Fully healthy after battling a hand injury suffered in the Arizona Fall League and starting the season on a rehab assignment with Fredericksburg, Hassell is hitting .263 with six doubles, a triple, 17 walks, 11 runs, four RBIs, one stolen base and a .368 on-base percentage in 25 games with Harrisburg. He’s been hitting leadoff and playing mostly center field, where Wood also played with Harrisburg while mostly batting second or third.
It’s a good problem to have for first-year manager Delino DeShields. But the skipper said the organization has plans for both outfielders to split time between center and right.
“I've been directed to play these guys in certain spots and that's what they're gonna play,” DeShields said. “Primarily center and right, so they'll flip flop and share time at both of those spots.”
Through the first three games of this six-game series in Bowie, Hassell has been in center once and right twice. Wood flip-flopped between right and center with him. Neither of them are concerned about where they play in the outfield. They’re just happy to finally be sharing it.
“We'll probably see in the next week or so,” Wood said. “But I'm just really excited to be in the same lineup as him. I'm not really too concerned whether I'm in center, right or left, or he's in center, right or left. But yeah, it's gonna be a lot of fun for sure. We got a lot of good outfielders on this team. I know Blake Rutherford got Player the Week last week. So he's been doing his thing, too. So, it'll be a lot of fun for sure.”
“Well, of course, I'd like to manage like I was in D.C.,” DeShields said. “I'd like to think I was Davey Martinez right now, but it's not like that here. These guys, they have a plan for these guys that we have to follow as managers at the player development level. And that's just the way it is. I'd like to move them around a little bit, but right now, especially Hassell and Wood, they're gonna play primarily center and right. So, there's gonna be a few at-bats left in left field for somebody, so we'll see what happens.”
Meanwhile at the plate, Hassell has hit in the leadoff spot all three games with Wood batting second or third. That’s an enticing top of the lineup with Hassell’s ability to get on base and the speed he brings ahead of Wood’s power to all fields.
“I definitely think we can make each other better for sure,” Wood said. “So it's a lot to look forward to. I'm really, really excited to play with these guys.”
“You got to play the game within the game,” Hassell said. “If I do my job and three dudes do their jobs in a row behind us, we're gonna get runs in. So whatever I got to do. Yeah, James behind me has been good, but (Blake) Rutherford behind me has been great, too. J.T. (Arruda) behind me, he's been putting together ABs, man. He'll leave the ballpark if you let him, too. So having all of us plus James too, man, yeah, I definitely think you're gonna have to think twice about what you're gonna throw us.”
So far, Wood is still trying to get going at Double-A, which is to be expected. He collected a single in his first game and two hits, including his first home run, last night. Otherwise, he has been held hitless with one walk so far in Bowie.
It’s still super early and that adjustment will come, hopefully with the help of Harrisburg’s veteran leadership.
“I'm just happy that we have a veteran presence here for him though, for him and Hassell both. Two young guys that are climbing the ladder, and we have a good clubhouse here, good veteran leadership. So I'm excited for those guys to hang out with some of these guys, and hopefully some good things rub off on them.
“With James, we'll see. He's gonna be fine though. They're both very, very good players, athletic, they can both run. So I'm excited to see these guys play.”
The Nationals showed how highly they think of Wood with how quickly they promoted him to Double-A. In the past, they have usually made promotions in late June or early July, closer to the halfway point of the minor league season.
But they have high expectations for him and Hassell, something that doesn’t bother Wood as he focuses on the here and now.
“I don't really look too far into expectations,” he said. “I kind of just try and go out there and do my thing, and just whatever happens, happens. I don't really try ... I feel like if you try and live up to expectations, you kind of, I don't want to say like you can disappoint, but I don't really look too much into them. I kinda just try and go out there and do my own thing.”