The $1.5M bonus the Washington Nationals gave Juan Soto when they signed the then 16-year-old outfielder out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 was at the time the largest that the club had ever given to an international free agent, and it was a significant investment made in a teenager who projected as a future power hitter in the majors even then.
“We’ll spend money when we feel it is legit,” Assistant General Manager and Vice President of International Operations Johnny DiPuglia told the Washington Post at the time.
“You’re signing a 16-year-old kid, essentially a sophomore in high school.
The evaluation process is different. We did our due diligence. … If we find guys like that, and everyone is on board, we’ll be aggressive. If not, we’ll back off.”
What they saw in Soto, however, was a future big league hitter, who had the potential to hit for power once he developed.
“We think he’s the best left-handed hitter on the market,” DiPuglia explained after the Soto signing was announced.
“He understands using the whole field. And has good balance at the plate. You’re looking for guys that can hit and he’s got great makeup, too. And ultimately, we think he’s going to have some power.”
The first time that DiPuglia saw Soto, however, he wasn’t all that impressed with ... the pitcher.
“We saw him when he was probably 14 and a half years old as a left-handed pitcher,” DiPuglia told FBB’s Blake Finney last spring.
“Obviously, there wasn’t a lot to be excited about it there,” he added.
Juan Soto: "I want to be in a team where I can keep competing. Obviously, right now I know that @Nationals is in a rebuilding process and I feel very comfortable with the team."@z101digital @ZDeportes pic.twitter.com/cgpmUgQpBs— Héctor Gómez (@hgomez27) December 6, 2021
“And then my staff, Modesto Ulloa, Fausto Severino, and Casey McKeon, who also was going down there, we were on a trip and we saw him in the outfield and he still wasn’t a guy that lit you up out there, but we really liked what we saw at the plate, the way he could manipulate the bat, foul pole to foul pole, line drive, very highly-educated skillset on how to become a good hitter.
“We followed him and he got better and better and then to the point where we got a verbal deal in Fort Lauderdale at the stadium for the amount of money that we signed him for.”
Soto did, as DiPuglia has previously explained, get offered more than the $1.5M he got from the Nationals, but he signed with the club because he’d agreed to do so and given his word.
“We scouted him pretty intensely in the Dominican,” DiPuglia recounted in an MLB Network Radio interview in August of 2020, “and there was a showcase in Ft. Lauderdale, and I went over there to see him.
“And he was impressive, the way his at bats were, the way he tracked balls, the way he hit line drives foul pole to foul pole, so I was able to get him out of the game and put him in a batting cage in Ft. Lauderdale, which was kind of abandoned at that time, it’s since been knocked down, and there was a homeless person in there, I had to go in there and give him $20 to get him out of there so we could work [Soto] out. We worked him out and this guy was hitting balls like a bomb was coming off of a tank and we came to a verbal agreement.”
But just a verbal agreement at that point, and DiPuglia wasn’t the only scout that saw Soto’s potential.
“When I came out Mike Russell (Detroit) and De Jon Watson (Arizona) were outside trying to figure out what was going on,” DiPuglia said of the other serious suitors for Soto’s services.
“And I told them to move on, that the deal was done, so they were a little too late on the evaluation.”
“Now De Jon works with me, De Jon works with the Nationals,” DiPuglia added of Watson, who has been a special assistant to Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo since 2017, and was recently named the Nats’ new director of player development.
Call on the morning I’ll be on the way! ✌ pic.twitter.com/6ksE8ySMWy— Juan José Soto Pacheco (@JuanSoto25_) December 6, 2021
DiPuglia said that years later he still reminds Watson how that race to get Soto signed worked out.
“He brings it up all the time: ‘I offered that kid $2.5M and he signed with you for $1.5M, why did that happen?’”
“I go, ‘Once they give me a handshake they’re never going to go back on it.’”
What did DiPuglia see from Soto at 16 that made him confident enough to sign him?
“There’s a saying that a good friend of mine Rene Gayo always told me. He said ‘When you go to a ball field and you see a dog playing checkers, sign that guy.’
“I don’t know if you guys understand what I’m trying to tell you? Have you ever seen a dog playing checkers?
“That was Juan Soto the day we evaluated him in that Ft. Lauderdale stadium.”