Juan Soto played seven games in left field in the minors before he made his MLB debut, no matter what Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo tells you; two in 2017, and five in 2018.
But still the strides he’s made as a defender have been impressive, and as Rizzo said in his pregame Zoom call with reporters on Sunday afternoon, they thought he would help their club out one day when they signed a then-16-year-old Soto to a $1.5M deal in July of 2015, but not as quickly as he did.
“We thought he was going to be an impact player when we signed him,” Rizzo said.
“Nobody knows you’re going to be an impact player at 19 years old.
‘I don’t think anybody expected that, but we did see the progression that he needed to be at the highest level, because he was ready for it.”
Rizzo was discussing the club’s tendency to bring young players up on a near-yearly basis to get them acclimated at the major league level if they think the players can contribute.
“We’re an organization that we put a young player on a championship caliber club just about each and every year.
“Whether it be when we brought up [Stephen] Strasburg or [Bryce] Harper or [Anthony] Rendon or Soto and then [Victor] Robles, now [Luis] García and [Carter] Kieboom. You look at a future lineup beyond this year, you’ve got young players at third, shortstop, second base, left and center field, so it’s a really kind of uplifting and positive outlook for the future of this team.”
Soto entered play on Monday with a .291/.406/.549 line, 61 doubles, and 63 home runs over 283 games and 1,224 plate appearances in three big league campaigns, with a World Series ring on his finger.
So, is it safe to say Soto has outperformed even Rizzo’s expectations at this point in his career?
“I think that our expectations [were] that he was going to be an impact player, I just didn’t know at what timetable it was going to be,” Rizzo said, “... but we knew we had a special offensive player there, and what makes me very proud of Juan Soto is the way he’s really attacked the defensive side of the ball.
“He’s become a terrific defensive left fielder, and we all recall when we brought him up he had never played left field before in a professional game before until he got to the big leagues.
“He adapts well, he makes adjustments offensively and defensively, and he’s an impact player, and he gives us energy and the potent bat in the middle of our lineup which every championship-caliber team needs.”
Soto went 4 for 5 with two doubles in the Nationals’ loss to the Marlins last night, leaving him with a .400/.487/.815 line on the season in 2020.
“He’s really staying behind the ball really well right now,” Davey Martinez told reporters after the Nationals’ 11-8 loss to the Miami Marlins.
“He’s getting the ball in the strike zone, and he’s hitting the ball really, really hard.
“That’s who he is. You’re seeing someone really mature every year, you know, like he’s been here, we’ve had him, I think now he understands what he can do. He knows what pitches that he’s looking for, what he can hit hard.”
“Right now, I feel really good,” Soto the now-21-year-old slugger said after his four-hit night. “I feel really good, I’m seeing the ball really well. I’ve just been working a lot. I’ve been working a lot, and all the work is coming out right now. It feels good to be up there, but if the team doesn’t win, it isn’t working, so we’ve got to find a way to keep helping the team, keep playing defense, and everything.”
Rizzo and Martinez have also talked about Soto’s approach and philosophy at the plate, and Soto too has discussed his ability to remain focused on every pitch of every at bat, which is something he said was instilled in him on his way up in the organization.
“Since I’ve been in the minor leagues all my hitting coaches have helped me out through the minor leagues,” Soto explained.
“I learned everything from them. I remember I was in Low-A, and the coach, he just came up to me and said, ‘Hey, never give up an at bat. Don’t matter if we’re winning by a lot or if we’re losing by a lot, always fight in your at bats, because you never know when you’re going to need it,’ and since that I just try to fight every at bat, and try to be consistent.
“If my team needs me right now, I’m just not going to give any at bats away. I’m going to try to do damage and try to put pressure on the other team. That’s the thing right now.
“Every time I come to the plate I try to come to do damage and try to help my team the most that I can.”