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James Wood, Jackson Merrill Star In California League Opener



SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.—The Padres farm system has dropped from No. 1 to No. 21 over the last three years, hollowed out by graduations and trades for veterans to bolster the big league club.

That doesn’t mean the system is light on talent, however. James Wood and Jackson Merrill emphasized that point loud and clear on Opening Day in the California League.

Wood hit two long home runs and Merrill had two doubles to lead Low-A Lake Elsinore to a 12-0 win over Inland Empire (Angels) in the California League opener on Friday night. The Padres’ top two draft picks last year, Merrill and Wood accounted for four of Lake Elsinore’s five extra-base hits in the rout.

“They’re great to have,” Lake Elsinore manager Eric Junge said. “There’s more than two guys on this team. I would say there is a really good offensive core and some pitching, but when you have two very, very bright stars in the making potentially—there’s a long way to go in these kids’ careers, we’re not trying to anoint anybody tonight—but it was a special night. Especially for James, it was awesome.”

Wood, the Padres’ second-round selection out of IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) last year, stole the show with two titanic blasts. After chasing a full-count breaking ball for a strikeout in the first inning and hitting a ground ball that deflected off the pitcher for an infield single in the third inning, the 6-foot-7, 240-pound Wood got to show off his monstrous power in the fourth. Facing hard-throwing Inland Empire righthander Kelvin Caceres, Wood got a first-pitch fastball over the plate and launched it over the center-field fence for a three-run home run. The home run traveled an estimated 427 feet and left his bat at 107 mph, according to Trackman.

“First home run I was really just looking to jump on a fastball early,” said Wood, 19. “I had an idea (it was gone). I knew I got it but I was like ‘if it goes out, we’ll figure that out later.’”

Wood wasn’t done. After grounding out in the fifth inning, he stepped up against lefthanded reliever Joey Walsh in the seventh and clubbed a full-count breaking ball over the high wall in right field for a two-run homer. Trackman data on the blast was not available.

“I was sort of just really just going in looking for a fastball and then I just got lucky he hung a slider over the plate and I was able to do something with it,” Wood said. “It was a good feeling, for sure.”

Wood had one final plate appearance in ninth inning with a chance to hit his third homer of the game, but with Inland Empire pitching him extremely carefully, he drew a walk. He finished 3 for 5 with three runs scored and five RBIs in his full-season debut.

“He’s got a chance to be a special player,” Junge said. “We can keep it simple. He’s good in the outfield, he’s got pop, has instincts. The world is his oyster if he wants it. It’s there for him.”

Wood’s performance was the headliner, but Merrill stood out in his own right. The Padres’ first-round selection last year out of Severna Park (Md.) High, Merrill, 18, lifted two opposite-field doubles in his first two plate appearances to get Lake Elsinore’s offense rolling. His double in the first inning was the Storm’s first hit of the game, and he led off the third inning with his second double to set the stage for a five-run inning.

Notably, Merrill hits lefthanded and both of his doubles came off a lefthander, and an experienced one at that in 22-year-old Jose Salvador, who is repeating the league. Merrill fell behind 0-2 in his first at-bat before hanging in on a breaking ball and driving it over the head and off the glove of Inland Empire left fielder Trent Deveaux. In Merrill's second at-bat, he hung in on another breaking ball and drove the 1-0 offering into the left-center gap to the wall.

He also converted every one of his defensive chances at shortstop without issue, showing smooth footwork and actions, a reliable glove and an accurate arm.

“He’s got a bright future,” Junge said. “I like the way he was trying to hit the ball to left field. It looked like he was trying to do that, with success. I mean he barreled a few balls…again, good with the hands, good instincts, good player.”

It was just one game, and both Merrill and Wood are teenagers still many years away from San Diego. Still, their full-season debuts were a promising sign that for all the talent that has left the Padres farm system in recent years, there is still more on the way.

James Wood Billmitchell

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