2021 MLB Draft Prospect James Wood Generates Immense Scouting Buzz
Some players leave their mark in a way that’s difficult to forget.
That’s certainly the case for John Goodwin. A youth travel ball coach of the Olney (Md.) Pirates, Goodwin remembers taking over the 9-year-old Pirates club and being told by the commissioner to take the best players he could find.
That direction led Goodwin to select 7-year-old James Wood. He was too young, the commissioner said. You can’t have a 7-year-old on a club made up of players two years older. That just didn’t happen.
“I said, ‘You told me to take the best players I saw out there,’ ” Goodwin remembers saying. “I said, ‘He’s 7 years old and he’s going to be one of our top four players. Not today, but if I coach him for six months, he’ll be in the top four for sure.’ So that’s how it started.”
Goodwin knew there was something special about Wood. But back then, it took a bit of time to see it. There was something a bit aloof about Wood on the baseball field in between the moments of action.
“When he was little, he never looked like he was ready for a ball or ready to hit the pitch,” Goodwin said. “But as soon as action started—I’m talking either the ball being hit to him or the pitcher starting his windup—his focus became laser. He was just amazing. I knew he had something special then.”
Wood left his mark on Goodwin during one of the team’s first batting practices. Constantly trying to challenge his players, Goodwin threw overhand at the time despite the youth of the team. He remembers putting a firm touch on the ball as he chucked pitches over the plate, over and over again, hoping they would slowly learn to catch up to the increased speed. Wood didn’t have any such problems.
On one pitch, Wood laced a ball right back at Goodwin, hitting his leg.
“I still have a welt on my shin,” Goodwin said, laughing. “I can still feel the damn thing. It was a pop.”
It doesn’t take long at all for Wood’s presence to be noticed on the field in 2020.
“He’s hard not to notice,” said Wood’s father, Kenny. “He’s a 6-foot-6 African American baseball player. There’s not a lot of them out there.”
After gaining around 20-25 pounds of strength before the summer, Wood now stands as one of the more physically imposing players in the 2021 draft class. A 6-foot-6, 230-pound center fielder is rare enough, but when you add tantalizing raw power, sneaky good speed and a more refined hit tool than expected, the scouting industry starts to notice.
“He put himself squarely on the map for everybody,” said one scout after Wood’s loud week at East Coast Pro. “Projection (body), now hit, projectable power. Playing center and can move pretty well for a big man. Good arm. It is all coming together at the right time for him.”
Considering Wood’s family, his athletic success shouldn’t be much of a surprise. His father was a standout basketball player at Richmond and later played pro ball in Europe and South America. His older sisters are both involved in Division I women’s basketball programs. Kayla is a manager for Notre Dame, while Sydney has been a guard with Northwestern since the 2018-19 season.
“All the kids were involved in sports as kids,” said Wood’s mother, Paula. “They did everything.”
Growing up in that athletic household has helped push Wood to where he is today: committed to Mississippi State and a rising name for major league teams as they prepare for the 2021 draft.
“I wouldn’t say we were trying to best each other but to push each other to be the best athletes, teammates, everything we could be,” Wood said about his childhood with his sisters.
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Wood was a talented basketball player in his own right but started to focus on baseball exclusively after moving from Maryland to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he will be seen as often as any prep player in the country.
After showcasing some of the most usable power in the 2021 prep class this summer, Wood is now trying to prove he has what it takes to handle center field.
“That’s one of the things that kind of gives me a chip on my shoulder,” Wood said. “A lot of times people do look at me and think ‘right fielder’ and don’t even think about center, so that’s just one of the things that I try to prove—that I can play center and I can play well.”
There aren’t many regular center fielders in the major leagues as tall as Wood is now. In the Integration Era (1947 onward), just five stood 6-foot-5 and played at least half of their career games in center field—Lewis Brinson, Dexter Fowler, Bradley Zimmer, Kevin Mahar and Jerry Mallet. While four of those five played this century as the game continues to get bigger and more physical at up-the-middle positions, no players taller than 6-foot-5 meet that criteria.
That doesn’t stop evaluators from praising Wood’s defensive prowess. If his speed holds up and his first-step jumps and routes remain crisp, there’s no reason he should have to move off the position.
But as Wood continues to make a name for himself, and as the crowds of scouts and advisers watching him continue to grow, he’s trying to keep things simple and enjoy the game he grew up loving.
“I just go out there every game, play hard and have fun,” Wood said. “. . . It’s always been a dream of mine to play in MLB. It’s probably been most youth players’ dream, but it’s just kind of cool to see every little goal I make that I achieve. It’s cool seeing that play out and just going along with the ride.”
For those watching Wood, the ride has been just as enjoyable.
“I’m happy as heck for him,” Goodwin said. “He has what I think it takes to get to the next level or two, whatever that’s going to be for him.”