Juan Soto has been quietly plugging along, with occasional loud outbursts, big home runs, multi-hit games, and a few really impressive catches in left field where he’s improved some defensively in his second big league campaign.
With a walk in his final plate appearance in Tuesday night’s 2-0 loss to the Baltimore Orioles in the nation’s capital, the Washington Nationals’ 20-year-old outfielder has reached base in 28 of 30 games, with a .289/.418/.658 line, six doubles, 12 home runs, 26 walks, and 20 Ks over that stretch, which has left him with a .288/.401/.550 line, 21 doubles, 29 homers, 84 walks, and 106 Ks in 120 games 534 plate appearances overall in 2019, over which he’s been worth 4.0 fWAR.
Soto talked over the weekend in Chicago, after he’d hit a 412 foot opposite field blast to left-center in Wrigley Field, about how he was feeling at the plate in recent weeks.
“When I hit the ball to left-center,” Soto said, “that’s the part of the field I love to hit the ball, every time I hit the ball that way I feel really good because that’s my power side.”
“Lately I’ve been hitting the ball to right-center,” he added, “because they’re throwing me away or whatever, but when I hit it to left-center I love that.”
That home run was the 51st of his career, in 236 games and 1,028 plate appearances, which is the third-most in MLB history before a player’s 21st birthday, behind only Mel Ott, who hit 61, and Tony Conigliaro, who hit 56, and Soto’s 163 walks before turning 21 years old are the second-most, behind only Ott’s 179.
So, Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo was asked in his weekly visit with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies this week, is it safe to say that Soto has exceeded any expectations the team had for him when he was signed out of the Dominican Republic for $1.5M in May of 2015.
“You don’t know how good a player is,” Rizzo said of what they thought when they signed Soto. “We had high hopes for him when [Vice President of International Operations] Johnny DiPuglia and I signed him when he was 16 1⁄2 years old. We don’t give guys we don’t love $1.5M to sign, so it was the most money we ever spent in the international market at the time, so we knew he was good, and the player development system did a great job with this guy.”
DiPuglia, in a 2015 article by MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez, offered the following scouting report on Soto shortly after he was signed.
“Soto is a left-handed hitter with advanced feel for hitting and projection for power. He profiles as a corner outfielder with a solid arm and good instincts.”
Three years later, Soto debuted in the majors, after a meteoric rise (and some injuries at the big league and minor league levels which brought about a need), having put up some solid, impressive numbers in a relatively brief time in the Nationals’ minor league system.
“Remember he was derailed, his first year in professional baseball, by a broken ankle and had really taken off from there,” Rizzo continued.
“The one thing that I think we do as well as anybody in baseball internationally and with the domestic draft, is we look at these players’ make-up, and what their character is all about.
“This guy’s was off the charts in both of those requirements. Package that with that he’s got a good skill set, he can really hit, he has some power and that type of thing, but this guy — what he came from and how fast he came, and the fact that he came to the big leagues never playing left field* in his life, at 19 years old, with a handful of at bats at the Double-A level and did what he did offensively last year is remarkable, I’ve always said that. To play a new position at the major league level, at 19 years old, and still hit in the middle of the lineup on a contending team is just incredible and he’s handled everything with poise and kind of the make-up of a veteran already.”
[ed. note - “ * = Soto had played some left field before he was called up. The idea that he’d never played left before coming to the majors is part of the Soto mythos now.”]
So, as good as he’s been, and as young as he is, has Rizzo entertained the idea of signing Soto to a long-term deal now so things don’t play out the way they did with Bryce Harper, and the way they’re playing out now with Anthony Rendon?
Soto’s playing on a 1-year/$578,300 deal this season. So, Rizzo was asked, have you thought about extending him long-term now?
“Let’s just give him 10 years and $180M or $200M or whatever the hell it is, let’s just give it to him now, let’s just end this one, right?” the Junkies asked.
“We would give him 10 years, $180M tomorrow morning for sure,” Rizzo told the Junkies, “but I don’t think he’s going to accept that.”
Ronald Acuna, Jr. who is a year older, and has been every bit as good (Braves fans and many around baseball will say he’s been better) than Soto, signed a 10-year/$100M extension back in April, which includes options for 2027 and 2028. Did anyone ask Soto about 10/$180M?
But of course, Rizzo went on, the Nationals would love to lock Soto up long-term early in the process to keep him in the nation’s capital for the foreseeable future.
“He’s a superstar and a super person,” Rizzo said, “... and a guy you want to have around your team for a long time.
“What you guys don’t understand is we’re all in on these long-term extensions, but it’s a two-way street, both sides have to do it. We’re certainly invested in these guys financially and emotionally and they’re very special to me. These are guys I’ve seen for years and years and years, and of course we want to keep them in the system and in the organization, and we handpick a lot of guys to extend long-term contracts to and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.”