Less than three months before the Padres selected him in the second round of the 2021 MLB Draft and paid him first-round money, James Wood ended his high school career in an apparent slump. He had hit .258 as a senior at IMG Academy in Florida. He had struck out in 29 percent of his plate appearances. As he struggled, major-league teams soured on the idea of taking him near the top of the draft. His body language became a topic of conversation: Some evaluators saw what they believed to be a supremely gifted yet noticeably disinterested ballplayer.
Meanwhile, IMG hitting coordinator John-Ford Griffin bristled at the notion.
“I take it personal with guys like him,” Griffin said. “Like, dude, he’s not lazy. He’s not a guy who you should consider that. I get what you’re seeing, I do. But if you watch him enough, you’ll realize this kid is engaged. He knows what he’s trying to do.”
At least one team returned for a closer look. Late last spring, after his disappointing senior campaign, Wood stayed on IMG’s sprawling campus for several more weeks. He walked at the school’s graduation ceremony. He scrimmaged with younger players. He tested his uncommon physical limits, recording a 6.37-second 60-yard dash and a 44-inch, two-step vertical. And he logged hours inside the batting cage with Griffin, a former Blue Jays outfielder. It was during this time that Padres area scout John Martin and regional scouting supervisor Chris Kelly saw a slightly different hitter than the one who had underperformed earlier in the year.
Wood’s hands in his pre-swing setup were higher and more relaxed. He was standing more upright in the batter’s box, like he had the previous summer when he soared on draft boards. He seemed wholly at ease working alongside Griffin, who now had more time to provide one-on-one instruction. Talking with Wood in that setting, the scouts were impressed by the teenager’s thoughtfulness.
Weeks later, San Diego took him No. 62 overall. The 6-foot-6 outfielder, before the spring, had been projected to go at least 40 spots higher. The Padres, after their post-spring visits, wondered if they had acquired one of the steals of the draft.
(Photo: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)