July 22, 2024

Ghiroli: James Wood’s arrival is about more than just a young star’s promotion

WASHINGTON — James Wood was in high school when the 2019 Washington Nationals made their improbable run to a World Series championship. He followed it closely for two reasons: He was a baseball-obsessed kid on the precipice of transferring to IMG Academy in Florida to accelerate that dream, and because he grew up in nearby Olney, Maryland, and the Nats were the team Wood and nearly everyone in St. John’s College High School in Northwest D.C. grew up rooting for.

Five years later, the 21-year-old Wood’s big-league arrival (the Nationals officially purchased his contract Monday) was met with the kind of feverish atmosphere typically reserved for postseason events.

There was a media throng of more than 50 people lined up outside the team clubhouse, clamoring to shove a microphone in his direction. Crowds lined up early at the entrance gates, the first 10,000 of which scored a free James Wood T-shirt. For days prior, players talked openly about their anticipation of seeing Wood, whose promotion leaked on Friday and allowed him a few days of rest and brief time with his family. At 6-foot-7 with power and freakish speed, the quiet, shy Wood — the Nats’ top prospect and the third-best in all of baseball according to MLB.com — could be the kind of superstar not seen in the district since a 19-year-old very unshy Bryce Harper debuted in 2012.

But the most important thing about Wood’s arrival isn’t him, the individual. It’s that the Nationals appear to be on the other side of an oft-painful rebuild, with a young core in place and a few more on their way. It feels like it could be the start of something again.

“It reminds me of 2012,” said longtime National Ryan Zimmerman who now serves as a special advisor. “Where we are starting to get good again and you have some young guys who come up and really help us.”

Zimmerman was 27 years old that season on a roster that also included Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmerman and Gio González. The 2012 Nationals won 98 games, clinching a playoff spot and posting their first winning record since the team arrived in Washington in 2005, setting off a long period of contention.

On Monday, the Nationals lost 9-7 in 10 innings to the New York Mets with Wood starting in left field, CJ Abrams (23) at shortstop and MacKenzie Gore (25) on the mound. All three came over in the 2022 blockbuster Juan Soto trade with the San Diego Padres, a move that was nearly universally panned by fans and the baseball world, all who assumed it was preposterous to deal Soto and get anything resembling a fair return. General manager Mike Rizzo, who pulled the trigger, didn’t just get a fair return: He reshaped the organization, setting in motion a series of other trades (most notably pitcher Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner) that would quickly restock the organization’s minor-league system and allow the Nationals to shave years off the rebuilding process.

James Wood hits a second-inning single, his first major-league hit. (Jess Rapfogel / Getty Images)

“I give Rizzo a lot of credit. … We got a lot of other young players that are coming,” said Nationals manager Davey Martinez, whose Monday lineup also featured 25-year-old Keibert Ruiz (part of the Scherzer-Turner deal) and 24-year-old Jacob Young. “(Twenty-year-old pitcher Jarlin) Susana, who is going to be here and do well, who we got in the trade for Juan (as well). We’re very excited about what’s going to transpire here for many years. This is only the beginning.”

The Nationals haven’t had a winning season since 2019. Their farm system paid a price for key additions during their last competitive window, a stretch from 2012-19 in which they made the playoffs five times and won the NL East in four of them. Through trades and high draft picks, such as Dylan Crews, Cade Cavalli and Brady House, the Nationals have rebuilt their farm system and have a wave of young talent both in Washington and on the cusp of getting there. Seven of their top eight prospects, including Wood, have a big-league ETA of 2025 or sooner.

“It’s just fun to have people in your system to pull up,” Zimmerman said. “It’s exciting for us, but more importantly, I think it’s exciting for the fan base. It gives people a reason to come to the park. Young teams are fun. That’s how we started. That’s why I say (it’s like) 2012. So many of us were here for the better part of those 10 years. That’s how you build your fan base and they become familiar with the guys and hopefully these guys come out and do well and then you have to sign them (long-term).”

Perhaps no one is more suited to be the next face of the franchise than Wood, who has the potential to be a 40-plus homers and steals guy, a tantalizing blend of speed and power with the local hometown angle that fans latch on to. He led Washington’s minor-league system and ranked second among all minor-league hitters in batting average (.353), on-base percentage (.463) and OPS (1.058) before his promotion. Wood, clearly overwhelmed by the attention Monday, spoke in short sentences and kept mentioning how special it was just to be here. (Asked to describe the day in one word, “special” was the one he chose.)

“I don’t want him to feel like he’s a face of anything,” Martinez said of Wood, who finished 1-for-4 with a walk. “This is just one of many guys we feel like is going to help us at the major-league level.”

If Wood’s first at-bat, a 106.7 mph single the other way, is any indication, the on-field transition will be the easiest. The spotlight will fade a little bit. The initial media glare will dwindle. Wood, too, will grow more accustomed to the limelight and more comfortable answering questions about the organization and his role in helping move the Nationals forward. Even if he can’t see it now, the sage Zimmerman can.

“This is cool to see because everyone’s concentrating on him, but it’s more about that we are starting to go like this,” Zimmerman said, pointing his hand upward. “People and pieces are coming. And they won’t all be superstars, but you need your own people to build your roster and once you have the five or six core guys you have here that are young, then you go do the free-agent stuff.”

The Nationals are 4 1/2 games behind the third wild-card team in a crowded National League. It remains to be seen if they’ll be buyers or sellers. The Nationals aren’t quite back to prominence, but you can start to see a path to get there. That’s what Wood’s presence brings. Is it an immediate lineup boost? Sure. But with multiple ovations for Wood and one for Gore when he exited, the arrival of No. 50 feels like it could be about much more.

(Top photo: Jess Rapfogel / Getty Images)