Signed out of the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old for $1.5M back in 2015, left-handed hitting outfielder Juan Soto played a 122 games and made 512 plate appearances in three seasons in the Nationals’ Minor League system before he was promoted to Washington in time for the series finale with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday afternoon.
Did he ever think it might happen this quickly?
“Like that quick, no,” the now-19-year-old slugger told reporters in the Nationals’ clubhouse.
“But that was my goal. My goal was to come here at some [point] this year, but I didn’t think it was going to be that quick.”
The promotion was the third of the season for Soto, who started the 2018 campaign at Low-A Hagerstown in the Nats’ system.
He was promoted first to High-A Potomac, and then Double-A Harrisburg, where he played in eight games. He put up a combined .362/.462/.757 line, 10 doubles, four triples, and 14 home runs over 39 games and 182 plate appearances overall before he got he learned he’d join the big league club.
Soto has risen quickly, but enjoyed success at every stop, with his injury-impacted 2017 season slowing his development, though he continued to hit when healthy last summer.
“He’s passed all the tests that we’ve thrown at him,” Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo told reporters after the outfielder arrived in the nation’s capital.
“We feel that because of the circumstances that he’s our best option to help us win baseball games in the big leagues and to forward his developmental process.”
The circumstances Rizzo was referring to include a number of injuries that have decimated the Nationals’ outfield depth, with Adam Eaton, Brian Goodwin, Victor Robles, and Rafael Bautista all injured and unavailable, while Michael A. Taylor, Andrew Stevenson, and Moises Sierra (who was designated for assignment on Sunday) have struggled offensively.
Howie Kendrick’s ruptured achilles tendon this weekend was the move that finally led to the call-up.
With all that factored in, Rizzo and Co. in the Nats’ front office decided it was time to give their top (available) outfield prospect in the organization a shot.
“He’s going to get a chance to play,” Davey Martinez said, though Soto wasn’t in the lineup for the series finale with the Los Angeles Dodgers and their left-handed starter Alex Wood on Sunday.
“We’re probably going to limit his at bats against lefties,” Martinez explained.
“We’ll pick and choose left-handed pitchers that will be suitable for him, but I want to put him in situations where he’s going to succeed. We’re happy to have him. He’s going to be fine, he really is.”
Soto’s discipline at the plate is something both the manager and GM pointed to when they discussed the willingness to bring the relatively inexperienced power bat to the majors.
“The biggest thing is when I saw him in Spring Training, the few times I saw him,” Martinez told reporters, as quoted by MASN’s Byron Kerr, “is his approach at the plate.”
“His willingness to take his walks. Really his game awareness in the box. He’s really good. That allows him to have the at-bats that he’s had. I think he’s going to be fine up here, I really do. I talked to him earlier. I told him nothing changes. Take your walks. Get pitches in the strike zone. Just be yourself.”
“That’s probably the biggest reason that he is here,” Rizzo said. “It’s hard to take a young, talented, free-swinging 19-year-old and bring him to the big leagues.”
“I’ve had the opportunity to bring several 19-year-old players to the big leagues,” he added, noting that he’d overseen the development of Justin Upton, Bryce Harper, and Robles, who all debuted at 19 years old.
“They had one thing in common: They knew the strike zone. They weren’t wild swingers and controlled their at-bats.”
Youngest players in @MLB:#Nats J. Soto 10/25/98#Braves R. Acuña 12/18/97#Braves O. Albies 1/7/97#Yankees G. Torres 12/13/96#RedSox R. Devers 10/24/96#STLCards J. Hicks 9/6/96#Braves L. Gohara 7/31/96#Brewers F. Peralta 6/4/96#BlueJays Ureña 2/26/96#Mets Rosario 11/20/95— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) May 20, 2018
“We think that Juan has the same capabilities and skill set for that,” Rizzo continued.
“We think that makes it easier for him to adapt to such an accelerated level.
“We think that he is ready to take the next step and the next challenge, even after a very short stint in Double-A. We felt because of the circumstances, because of the talent level, he’s earned a promotion here. Now the injury factor obviously accelerated the timetable for him.”
They didn’t hesitate to bring Soto up, though.
“We love the kid’s makeup,” Rizzo said.
“He’s a great teammate. He’s a very mature player at 19 years old. He’s taken to all the levels that we’ve had him at this year. We feel that although there will be a learning curve at the big league level that he should help us win games here in the big leagues and develop at the same time, which I think is the most important factor.”
Soto made his MLB debut against Dodgers’ right-hander Erik Goeddel in the first at bat of the bottom of the eighth, with the Nationals behind, 5-2. He went down swinging at a 1-2 changeup.
“We wanted to get him an at bat today,” Martinez said after what ended up a 7-2 loss that completed a sweep for LA.
“I told him just go up there and get your hacks and hopefully you get on base and lead us off. I like his swing, I really do. He just missed a fastball, fouled it back, and then the thing about his swing is he stays through the strike zone a long time, and I like it.”
With left-handers starting each of the next two games against the San Diego Padres, the Nats’ skipper said he’d have to decide when to get his newest weapon in the lineup.
“I’m going to look at the matchups when I go back in, but I definitely want him to play one of the next two days.”