By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
What a difference a year can make.
As February approached last year, Eric Wood was trying to get back to the basics of baseball, coming off of a less-than-ideal season first season in Double-A with the Pirates organization. Out of spring training, Pittsburgh sent the Canadian third baseman back to Altoona for a second straight year, where he took his opportunity and ran with it.
“It was pretty much a sink-or-swim year for me,” Wood said. “That’s just how I looked at it. I decided that I was either going to do it or I wasn’t, so that maybe took a little bit of the pressure off. I figured that’s the tipping point in guys’ careers, when they get to Double-A. You’re either going to move forward or that’s the end of the road for you. So I knew that going into the season, and I was going to let the chips fall where they may…I just tried to go out there and play baseball.”
Wood bettered his numbers in every offensive category for the Curve, with a notable increase in run production and the biggest jump in his slugging percentage over the previous year, slashing .249/.339/.443. The 24-year-old more than doubled his career total in home runs with 16 long balls in 2016, adding 20 doubles, five triples, and increasing his walks while cutting back on strikeouts with an improved hitting approach.
“I definitely was a lot more aggressive at the plate, and that really changed how I was pitched to and how I hit in the same token,” Wood said. “I started to hit balls a lot harder and then my walks would go up because they wouldn’t want to throw balls over the middle of the plate. It was a win-win by being aggressive for me.
“I learned a lot from the manager Joey Cora, who’s now the third-base coach in the big leagues, he showed me a lot about the game. But to be honest with you, it’s just experience. That’s how baseball is, you get better with time. The more you play, the better you get.”
Looking to get more time in on the field as he continued his progression, Wood’s plans to head to the Dominican were put on pause when the Pirates asked him to take a roster spot in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League with the Surprise Saguaros. There, he stood out among the crowd of impressive players when he hit .330/.388/.489 with three home runs and five doubles in 23 games, leading his team in OPS and 20 RBI.
“When I got the Arizona Fall League call I was pretty excited about it,” the native of Oshawa, Ont., said. “I didn’t really know a whole lot about what it was. I knew it was a prospect league. So I went in there with an open mind…
“Every guy in the AFL has a wow-you factor, he’ll do something that will wow you and that’s why they’re there. Like anything else, baseball is as much of a physical sport than it is mental so it wasn’t just because these guys had physical abilities beyond the average guy in Double-A, which is what I was used to, they didn’t really separate too much.”
When his time in the AFL came to an end, Wood went straight to the Dominican Winter League, where he added another three homers, four doubles, and 12 RBI in 25 games for the Gigantes del Cibao, and got his first glimpse of baseball in the Caribbean.
“It’s a completely different game there,” he said. “The rules are the same but the game is played a lot differently. Let’s call it the pageantry of baseball, the entertain aspect, is significantly different – the games are really late at night, there’s very little structure, and that goes for all things Dominican…
“I really enjoyed it. It was awesome. It was another opportunity for me to play with new teammates, a lot of older players who have been around for a long time, who have had a lot of experiences, who have played all over the world, so that was really cool.”
After the most successful year of his career came to a close, Wood finally got a call that he had been hoping and waiting for, an opportunity ahead of the upcoming season to play for his country at the World Baseball Classic.
“I’m really excited,” the 2012 sixth-round pick said. “This will be the first time I’ve ever played for Team Canada, and just about every other Canadian who plays professional baseball has played for a Canadian national team at some point.
“I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to represent my country and do it on a big stage, because where I’m from, baseball is really growing. In the east end [of the Greater Toronto Area], there are a handful of guys who I grew up with and there’s no question that we’re big role models for the young kids growing up playing baseball. Hockey used to be it, and now it’s not. There are a lot of young kids who when they see us come home and they see us train or watch some of the stuff on TV, it means a lot to them. I’ve seen it in the last four or five years, every time I go back and train in the facilities, it’s jaw-dropping how much the sport has really grown.”
Joining a roster of 28 as the only player who has never previously worn the red-and-white jersey at any level, Wood is excited for whatever opportunities he may get on the field, as well as a chance to be completely surrounded by his countrymen.
“I don’t know any details,” Wood said. “I talked to Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] and he told me that there is an opportunity, and nothing is for sure, and they still have to figure out a lot of stuff. I’m clearly not their guy, but I’m in the mix, that’s all I know right now. Things can change really quickly, so I’m just going to be ready, but I’m still waiting around to find out exactly what my role will be…
“But every time you’ve got new teammates it’s awesome. It’s awesome to learn from new people and especially guys who have had a lot of experience. And especially being Canadian – I don’t know why that makes a difference but it just does. I’m really looking forward to it.”
As special as the call was for the infielder, extending the invitation for the WBC and Wood’s first-ever stint with the family that is the national team program was enjoyable for Hamilton as well.
“When we’d spoken in the last couple years, Eric had articulated a strong desire to be part of the national program,” Hamilton said. “He said it’s something he’s always wanted to do. He was close as a junior and it didn’t work at the time but he was quite close, and he’s been close on a few occasions, and he started to obviously elevate his professional career.
“He was very excited, so it was nice to call somebody and know that they were chomping at the bit and wanted to do it and be there excited and motivated by it…I’ve always said if I don’t feel the same sense of enthusiasm when passing forward positive news to bring somebody in, then it’s probably time to do something different. So it is certainly great to hear the other end of the line when they’re excited and fired up and can’t wait to get going, and excited to wear the jersey. It’s special.”
While Wood’s time in Altoona, the Fall League and the Dominican will help his transition to the big-league stage that is the WBC, Hamilton believes that he will have continual guidance and assistance from all of his Team Canada teammates as they look to move beyond the first round of the tournament for the first time in Miami.
“He’ll be playing above what he’s played professionally, but he’s got some pro experience which is going to help him in terms of the speed of the game and all those sorts of things,” Baseball Canada’s director of national teams said. “There are two things that change, one is that he’s playing up in terms of the level of the pro player that he’s used to playing against day in and day out, and then it’s the international piece. You touch on managing emotions and being able to not let things get away, but at the same time understand that you’ve got to come in and play playoff baseball right away; that it’s not a minor league season.
“The big part is we have enough veteran presence and enough people who have been through it that when he arrives in the clubhouse he’s going to get support and help, and he’s not going to be asked to be Superman. It’s not like we’re bringing him in and asking him to be a guy who has to do all the heavy lifting. He’s going to have plenty of support around him in terms of veteran players.”
So, from heading into the start of spring training last year to the start of the upcoming pre-season, how much of a difference can a year make?
“A whole lot,” Wood said. “Last year going into spring training it was do or die. Now, I mean it still is, it’s always going to be like that, there are guys trying to take your spot and you’re trying to take somebody else’s spot, but it’s definitely different. I don’t know how it’s going to play out yet but it is different for sure.”