FREDERICKSBURG, Va. – James Wood grew up about an hour away from Nationals Park in Olney, Md. He attended Nationals games while starting his high school career as a two-sport athlete at St. John’s College High School in D.C. before transferring to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to focus on baseball.
When the Padres drafted him in the second round of last summer’s MLB Draft, he moved even further away from his hometown. But a little over a year later at this summer’s trade deadline, Wood found himself on his way back to his original neck of the woods as part of the five-prospect package the Padres put together to acquire Juan Soto and Josh Bell from the Nationals.
Wood entered the Nats system and was assigned to low Single-A Fredericksburg, which operates about an hour and half south of D.C. and places him back in a familiar region. And familiar traffic issues.
“It's nice. I'm like, what, I'm gonna say like an hour and 30 minutes (from home),” Wood said outside the FredNats clubhouse in left field at Virginia Credit Union Stadium. “I mean it really just depends on traffic. Like it could be an hour and 20 (minutes) to two hours. But just being able to really go home, if I need something from home, be able to stop by on off-day, just having my family here just about every game, it's real nice. So, I'm glad to be back home, glad to be close to family, close to home, all that stuff.”
Some players need an adjustment period when traded from one organization to another. Rarely do young prospects land near the city in which they grew up.
That’s not the case for Wood, who relishes the opportunity to represent his city for the hometown team and set an example for kids growing up in this area just like he did.
“It means a lot just being able to represent my city and just hopefully be able to just motivate some kids and really just being able to just represent D.C.,” he said. “Being from here, it's just gonna be real cool in the next few years. I'm just really excited for sure.”
Since arriving in Fredericksburg, Wood is slashing .292/.366/.463 with an .829 OPS, 14 runs scored, eight doubles, two home runs, 17 RBIs, four stolen bases and 10 walks over 21 games. His highly rated power and speed tools have been on display with the extra-base hits coming from his raw pop and long running strides that help him turn singles into doubles.
But Wood understands baseball is a fickle game. The offensive numbers aren’t always going to be there (see Soto and Bell’s current struggles in San Diego). But the one thing he can always control is effort and solid defense in center field.
“I think one thing I really try and pride myself on is defense,” Wood said. “I think one thing that really for sure shows up to the field every day is your defense. You're obviously not gonna get like a hit or two every game. So, I think when the bat is struggling a little bit, I think the defense can really come around and sort of pick your game up a little bit, so you can still help the team out and still help the team win.”
Since Wood’s arrival on Aug. 5 (when he recorded four hits with a homer and three RBIs in his FredNats debut), Fredericksburg has gone 19-13 and secured the Carolina League North division championship for the second half of the season. They’ll now play the first-half champion Lynchburg Hillcats (Guardians) in a best-of-three divisional round for the franchise’s first playoff appearance since the relocation from Potomac to Fredericksburg in 2020.
Wood did miss nine games after suffering a knee injury on Aug. 28, but he returned to the lineup for two games over the weekend. Healthy again, he’ll now lead the FredNats into the postseason as their series with the Hillcats starts tonight in Fredericksburg.
Had he not hurt his knee, Wood may have been on a trajectory to be promoted to high Single-A Wilmington. He had the production and the Blue Rocks had a need after Robert Hassell III, another outfield prospect from the Soto-Bell deal, was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg.
But both an injury and a promotion are out of Wood’s control, and he’s perfectly content focusing on his game close to home in Fredericksburg.
“I mean, it is what it is. I'm not really too worried about that right now,” he said. “I guess obviously, I'll be called up when the decision is made, when the organization believes I'm ready. But I'm just worried about playing my game right now. I guess I'll really just sort of worry about promotion and all that other stuff when it comes around. So just sort of focus on getting better each day and helping the team win.”
Helping the Nationals win is why Wood is now with the FredNats in the first place. He and Hassell are grouped together with MacKenzie Gore, CJ Abrams and Jarlin Susana as the top young prospects in the organization and, hopefully, the core of the next winning Nats team.
Of the group, Wood is only older than Susana at 19 years old. But at 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, he’s also the biggest of the bunch. The speed and skills he has at his size not only allowed him to excel at baseball and basketball at two of the top programs for both sports in St. John’s and IMG, but also to be one of the leading prospects in the Nats organization with tremendous upside.
“Yeah, it's a lot of good players,” Wood said. “I mean, even Susana … lighting up the gun at like 103 (mph) at like 18 years old. And you got the Hassells, CJ, they just hit. And then obviously MacKenzie Gore, too, I mean, you saw what he was doing in the big leagues. So, I think it's going to be real special for sure. I think the group that the Nationals got in return, I think it's a real special group of players. So I think really just it's a lot to be excited about. Yeah, shoot, it's a lot to be excited about. A lot of great players and a lot of tools that really will be able to help the Nationals win in the next few years to come.”
Aside from returning to the Mid-Atlantic region, Wood could also feel a sense of familiarity when he’s reunited with Elijah Green, the Nats’ first-round draft pick in July and Wood’s former teammate at IMG.
Hassell, Green and Wood are the Nats’ top three prospects, per MLB Pipeline. And it’s not lost on Wood that the three of them could make up the outfield at Nationals Park, just minutes from his hometown, in a few years.
“Yeah, for sure. That's a special group right there,” Wood said. “So just hopefully being on the field with those two guys, yeah, it should be a lot of fun.”