For Nationals rookie James Wood, the task ahead is tall, but he’s not stressed

The No. 2 overall prospect in baseball, who made his MLB debut on Monday, is known for his lanky frame and low-key demeanor

James Wood doesn’t think he’s shy.

Still, the No. 2 overall prospect in baseball, a baseballing unicorn who made his MLB debut on Monday for the Washington Nationals, acknowledges that he comes across as quiet.

“I just don’t really say a lot,” the 6-foot-7 outfielder told Yahoo Sports during a recent conversation before he was called up. “I’m just pretty chill.”

That’s Wood, as a person, in a nutshell: relaxed, low-key, stress-free. The ultimate chiller. Words crawl out of the 21-year-old with a Gen-Z disaffection that, to a cynical ear, might sound like disinterest. But don’t mistake the easygoing nature for that of a sloth or a laggard. Wood cares. He grinds, and he listens. He is reserved but incredibly attentive. Coaches and teammates gush about his character and his work ethic while making borderline irresponsible claims about the brightness of his future.

And why wouldn’t they?

Wood, drafted 62nd overall in 2021 by San Diego and traded to Washington one year later, has done nothing but drop jaws and turn heads during his relatively short time as a professional. In a remarkably short three years, the D.C.-area kid has gone from developmental pipe dream to franchise-altering force. In 52 games this season at Triple-A before his call-up, Wood posted a ludicrous 1.058 OPS with 10 home runs and almost as many walks as strikeouts. All that despite his being 5 1/2 years younger than the average Triple-A player.

Built like an Olympic volleyball player with track-star footspeed and light-tower power, there aren’t many baseball players like Wood. He is now one of only three MLB hitters, alongside Aaron Judge and Oneil Cruz, who stand 6-foot-7 or taller. Nobody in the minor leagues who played or coached with or against him forgets watching him run, let alone take batting practice.

“He's a giant, you know,” Jake Lowery, the manager of the Low-A Fredericksburg Nats, told Yahoo Sports. “I always talk about him being like a gazelle in the outfield. It doesn't look like he's running fast, but you look at his sprint-speed numbers, and you're like, Jesus Christ, this guy is really good.”

During his debut Monday, Wood showcased all the tools that make him a tantalizing prospect. In his first at-bat, he laced an opposite-field single 106.7 mph through the left side.

Later in the game, he posted a sprint speed of 30.4 feet per second, tied for the second-fastest in MLB this season.

This is, quite simply, a generational talent.

Which, to be clear, is different than being a generational player. As is the case for any prospect, there are landmines and pitfalls ahead. The annals of MLB are littered with “shoulda-beens.” Wood will struggle and adjust and struggle again. His ability to continually adapt and grow at the major-league level will dictate how his career unfolds. He knows all of this and is as prepared as anybody.

But for the Nationals, a club that has wallowed in the muck since its triumphant World Series title in 2019, Wood’s debut represented the start of an exhilarating new chapter.

In July 2022, the Nats smashed the reset button. Less than three years after the red-and-blue confetti fell at Minute Maid Park, the organization faced a hauntingly hazy future. The veteran stars of 2019 had departed in free agency or rusted with age. The farm system, depleted by years of win-now trades and poor development, couldn’t keep the window of contention propped open.

And so, GM Mike Rizzo and his front office determined that the only reasonable path forward was to trade away Juan Soto, already one of the game’s best players at 23 years old. In return for what should have been their “forever player,” the Nationals received from the Padres a cornucopia of prospects: Wood, pitcher MacKenzie Gore, shortstop CJ Abrams, outfielder Robert Hassell III and pitcher Jarlin Susana.

Wood, then a 19-year-old playing for San Diego’s Low-A team in Lake Elsinore, California, remembers the trade vividly. He was on a coach bus somewhere in the southern hills of San Bernardino County, 30 minutes into a six-hour road trip. All season, Soto trade rumors had consumed the sport, but Wood wasn’t expecting to be traded until that morning, when he woke up with “a feeling.” He was scrolling through Twitter when he saw the news and found out he was headed home to D.C.

But first he had to wait out the drive. The trade wasn’t yet finalized, and the team wasn’t going to turn the bus around.

Upon arrival in Visalia, Wood took an Uber to Fresno, flew to San Diego, Uber’ed back to Lake Elsinore, packed up his things, drove to San Diego and then flew to join the Low-A Nationals affiliate on the road in Kinston, North Carolina. The entire experience was a whirlwind, but Wood, per usual, was unfazed.

Looking back, he laughs at that absurd day of travel. “I just kinda had to wear it,” he said with his typical nonchalance.

He homered two days later, in his first game as a Nats minor leaguer.

“He came into the office, and obviously he had no Nationals apparel and stuff,” Lowery remembered. “And you know, we're on the road. So we're outfitting him with whatever stuff we have: a couple of shirts, some shorts. It’s mostly too big or too small. And he's just like, ‘Bro, I'll take whatever.’”

That’s how Wood has always been: amenable, low-maintenance, exceedingly kind. It’s an approach fostered, in part, by his upbringing. His two older sisters, Sydney and Kayla, were both highly competitive basketball players. Sydney was the team captain and an All-Big Ten honorable mention at Northwestern. James’ dad, Kenny Wood, was a legendary high school hooper on Long Island who went on to become a school Hall of Famer at Richmond University. His mom, Paula, works in the global health space and has dedicated much of her professional life to the eradication of dangerous diseases across the world.

It’s not the type of environment that produces a bum.

Accordingly, James showed himself early on to be a particularly gifted athlete. Around fourth grade, he made the decision to prioritize baseball over basketball for a hilarious, simple, very on-brand reason.

“I was better at basketball,” he recalled, “but baseball was more fun.”

As James continued growing, so did his talent. He matriculated to St. John's College High School, traditionally the top baseball program in D.C. But things didn’t really pop off until 2020, after his junior season was canceled by the pandemic. He put on 30 pounds that year, spending the months after lockdown eating like a bear and working out at a church near his house with friends.

It was also around that time, in July 2020, that Wood unleashed what is still the most awe-inspiring home run of his career.

“You’ve probably seen the video,” he said with a laugh when asked about it.

Playing for an area travel team named the Dirtbags during a high-profile tournament in Georgia called WWBA, the 17-year-old Wood took a pitch by his eyeballs and clobbered it into the distance. His teammate Derek Bender, now an All-Conference player at Coastal Carolina, was in the on-deck circle and was left mouth agape, completely dumbfounded.

“That was where the legend of James Wood came alive. He didn’t get out that whole tournament,” Bender said. “The kid is 6-foot-7, string bean at that point. He’s up there, no [batting gloves], hands are by his damn waist. And he never really swung at pitches up or in — that’s really why I made that face.”

Bender was not the first person to make that face in response to something James Wood has done on a baseball field. And he will most certainly not be the last. Nationals fans, coaches, players and brass hope that the foreseeable future is filled with such moments of inspired awe.

Wood carries the dreams of an organization on his very broad shoulders. For many, that expectation would be a burden.

But he is unperturbed. When asked how his relaxed and reserved vibe compares to some of the game’s flashier personalities, Wood simply shrugged.

“Baseball is fun. That’s kinda it. I just like playing.”