Please Give Us James Wood Now, Before Joey Gallo’s Shoulder Un-Kerplodes

Pittsburghers: Did I deliver the goods or what? Pirates officials have been coy about admitting this, but rational observers can surely all agree that flamethrowing phenom Paul Skenes is headed to the majors this weekend pretty much entirely due to my persuasive advocacy. It’s the power of blogging, is what it is. The Pirates said no, no way, not going to happen, and I said whoa whoa whoa, and then they said yes, Chris, you’re right, let’s make this happen. As a direct result, Skenes will make his major-league debut on Saturday afternoon, at home, against the Chicago Cubs, exactly as I and I alone suggested. Wow!

With great power, they say, comes great responsibility. What kind of a piece of shit would I have to be to refuse to direct my influence where it is likewise needed, which is anywhere and everywhere that cool and good young prospects are frozen in place in the minors for reasons that, objectively speaking, are bullcrap? We therefore turn our attention today to Rochester, New York, and the case of 21-year-old slugging outfielder James Wood, who is in the Washington Nationals farm system. Wood is considered by various rankings to be one of the top dozen or so prospects in the sport. The humongous-but-graceful lefty outfielder recently lit up the Grapefruit League, leading all qualified hitters across major-league spring training with an OPS of 1.214, before being sent down to Triple A at the start of the regular season for some fine-tuning, or possibly just to cynically maximize his time under team control.

We have now passed the threshold for maximally juking a prospect’s major-league service time, but Wood is still toiling away for the Red Wings, pointlessly. On Thursday, Wood socked a first-inning dinger off Tanner Tully of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders; it was part of what would become a three-RBI day. This was Wood’s third sockdolager in two days and fifth of the season; he is now slashing .344/.443/.552 with 23 walks and nine stolen bases in 32 games against the top competition of the minor leagues. Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post directed his readers’ attention this week to stats from Baseball America that say that Wood’s max exit velocity this season has topped 115 miles per hour, and that his average exit velocity (94.4 mph) matches that of one Shohei Ohtani. The young man absolutely kills baseballs.

There are openings, at least one of which is a very glaring one, in the outfield rotation of the Washington Nationals. Lane Thomas, who had a good season in 2023 and is the team’s everyday right fielder, hurt his knee on April 23 on a bad slide into second base and is still a couple weeks away from returning to the lineup. Center fielder Victor Robles, who missed most of last season with a bad back and then hurt his hamstring on April 3, is healthy again but appears to have lost his job to Jacob Young, a fun, speedy, and relentless little pest with absolutely zero power in his bat. Much as I may enjoy rooting for underdogs, none of the people I just named should stand between Wood and a starting gig with the Nationals, for the simple reason that none of them, today, are as good as Wood is. On a real contender, none of those players would have an everyday job; Thomas would be a fourth outfielder; Young would be a pinch runner and defensive substitute; Robles would be in Rochester, or Korea.

But the real opening is in left field, a position that is currently being shared by veterans Jesse Winker and Eddie Rosario. Both men were added to the roster in spring training on cheap one-year deals, with the idea being that one or the other of them might rediscover how to barrel up a baseball and add some useful lefty pop to a roster that hit the second-fewest dingers in the majors in 2023. Winker has had a nice start to the year, but Rosario has been awful. Even after a recent quote-unquote breakout, Rosario is batting .143 with a .481 OPS; MLB’s Statcast service says he ranks in the 4th percentile in batting run value. In a cruel twist, of the two of them, Rosario is closer to a competent defensive outfielder, although that’s not saying much; it says unbelievably grim things about Washington’s roster that Rosario started on Opening Day not in left, where he is already at the limits of his athletic abilities, but as the team’s center fielder. Winker has cooled off a bit at the plate in May but he puts together good at-bats and gets on base. Rosario, on the other hand, swings the bat like a man who’s abandoned all hope of producing positive outcomes and is now merely hoping to avoid the worst ones. On a real contender, Winker would be a fourth outfielder and occasional designated hitter, and Rosario would be in Korea, if not Sacramento.

Wood is better than all of these guys. The Nationals insist that there is more for Wood to learn, and that Rochester is the right place for him to learn it, and that the value of him doing that learning in Rochester is greater, for the organization, than the value of putting the organization’s best outfielder into the everyday lineup. They would like for Wood to get better at hitting southpaws. “He needs to get a bunch of at-bats,” explained Nationals manager Dave Martinez, when asked about this on Wednesday. “He needs to learn some different things. We want him to get better against left-handed pitching … He’s striking out 33 percent of the time against lefties, so I really want him to work on that.” It’s true: Wood has struck out more than is desirable against left-handed pitching this season. He’s also socked two dingers against lefties, and is slugging up near .500 against them; he hit .286 with an OPS of .800 against lefties in 2023. If he’s not especially proficient against lefties, certainly it would be almost mathematically impossible for him to be any worse than Rosario, who is already being platooned with irregulars like well-meaning quadruple-A journeyman Alex Call. The dinger Wood socked Thursday, while we’re here, was off a breaking pitch from a lefty.

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Martinez’s players-who-strike-out-a-lot-can’t-help-the-big-club rationale starts to crumble a little when you consider the case of another big lefty slugger who socked a home run Thursday for the Triple-A Red Wings. That’s Joey Gallo, whom the Nationals signed to a bargain one-year deal over the winter and slotted in as their everyday first baseman; he is currently rehabbing a shoulder injury in Rochester. Gallo, who hasn’t put up an average above the Mendoza line in five years, is striking out in an appalling 47.3 percent of his plate appearances in 2024. These are not lefty splits; against lefties Gallo is striking out a mind-boggling 53 percent of the time. The Nationals gave Gallo a one-year contract worth $5 million over the winter; he has struck out in fewer than a third of his total plate appearances in just one of his nine major-league seasons. So far in 2024 Gallo is in the first percentile in expected batting average, whiff rate, and strikeout rate, per Statcast. If the Nationals were hoping it was the shoulder, it’s not: In 22 rehab plate appearances in the minors, Gallo is batting .167 with seven strikeouts. Somehow, of the two huge Red Wings lefties who socked Thursday moonballs in central Pennsylvania, Gallo is the one who is fast-tracked to an everyday job with the Nationals.

So the Nationals don’t mind strikeouts. They don’t mind outfielders who can’t field their positions; they don’t mind regulars who can’t hit lefties; they don’t even mind sluggers who couldn’t get the sweet spot onto the ball if you spotted them a cricket bat. The plan the Nationals are sticking to isn’t developmental; Wood’s stall in Rochester isn’t about performance, nor is it even about service-time manipulation. It has everything to do with Winker, Rosario, and Gallo. The Nationals, despite their respectable record and delightful style of play, are still very much in rebuild mode. They did not sign Winker, Rosario, and Gallo to lock down important roles in the lineup and lead the team to the playoffs. They took cheap one-year flyers on three wayward veterans in the hope that one or more of them would rehabilitate their value sufficiently that, by July, they could be traded to a better team for prospects. Put simply, if the Nationals give Wood an everyday outfield job today, he will stand in the way of an ongoing vet-flipping operation.

This is the dismal business that the Nationals got into when they dive-bombed out of contention during the miserable 2020 season. It hasn’t really ever paid serious dividends for them, although they did score a minor triumph in 2023 when a rented Jeimer Candelario had an encouraging first half and was subsequently traded to the Cubs for a couple youths of dubious pedigree. The effort misses far more than it hits: Also in 2023 the Nationals attempted cheap rehabilitations of Dominic Smith and Corey Dickerson, neither of whom could be traded at all due to being broadly incapable of hitting for shit. Those guys, fortunately, weren’t standing in anyone’s way, in large part because the Nationals farm system was still recovering from years spent among the sport’s worst. The Nationals are now hoping that one or all of this dreaded lefty veteran trio will rediscover some magic and maintain it into the summer’s dog days, so that they could be flipped to a contender for a 19-year-old or two. Pursuing this campaign in 2024 means debasing themselves and insulting fans with baloney bluffs about the readiness of a guy who might sincerely already be the best position player anywhere in the organization.

I will not be accepting at this time any arguments that mention the names of Wyatt Langford or Jackson Holliday, two youths who’ve put their teams into binds this season by performing poorly (Langford) or disastrously (Holliday) in the majors. For one thing, screw those guys! For another, the Rangers are the defending World Series champions and the Orioles are very probably the best team in the American League, and so there is a lot of pressure on their ultra-hyped young prospects to perform in the majors. The Nationals were putrid crud as recently as 2022; their own behavior in this very instance, to say nothing of their offseason inactivity, tells you that they are not taking their recent brush with relevance very seriously at all. This is not a team that particularly gives a rip about winning, which means they can afford to give some leash to a kid who has already proven as much as there is to prove at the lower levels. Besides, a growing gap in pitching quality between Triple-A and the majors might mean that Wood cannot really make his next developmental leap until he’s allowed to flail around for a while against major-league hurlers. That’s not going to happen while his spot in the lineup is being held down by Winker and Rosario, at least one of whom is already doing what is surely the maximum amount of flailing allowable by law.

I for one am sick of it. The Nationals of 2024 are feisty and fun, and if that means they have arrived at a condition of general baseline competence ahead of schedule, that should be considered a good thing. The meager returns that might become available for a player of Eddie Rosario’s stature, even under the best of scenarios, are not worth sticking so strictly to a plan that calls for mediocrity. If D.C. fans are going to be forced to endure Joey Gallo, they should also be allowed to enjoy some James Wood. The Nationals have an opportunity to start their future by calling up an insanely cool young slugger, who also happens to be better than several of the stiffs ahead of him in the pecking order. Attempts to rationalize their ongoing refusal are pointless and ridiculous. Give us Wood! WE DEMAND WOOD!

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