WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — If you think Juan Soto is feeling pressure, think again.
Last May, Soto exploded onto the scene as a 19-year-old outfielder with the Washington Nationals. Due to injuries in D.C., he was rushed to the majors after just eight games above Class A. Over the next four-and-a-half months, he wrecked big league pitching and developed a habit of doing things few, if any, teenagers before him had accomplished. But that was then, and this is now.
Following a freshman campaign that, were it not for Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr., would have made him the runaway Rookie of the Year, Soto isn’t sneaking up on anyone. What’s more, now that a certain superstar and his big bat have moved just up the road to Philly, Soto is being counted on to do even more. Suddenly, he’s the face of the outfield — and the heart of the lineup — on a Nationals team trying to conquer a stacked NL East and prove that there is, in fact, life after Bryce Harper.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” the 20-year-old said while standing in front of his spring training locker at the Nats complex.
A year ago, Soto wasn’t in big league camp. He was the No. 2 prospect in the Nats organization, and the most recent work experience on his résumé was 23 games in Class A to finish the 2017 season. But he mashed to open 2018 and, after veteran Howie Kendrick suffered an Achilles injury in mid-May, was called up directly from Double-A. Nine months later, he was cordially invited to West Palm for his first spring training. Waiting there for him was a locker with a name plate — and, of course, expectations.
“If you play well, people expect good things out of you,” said Nationals shortstop Trea Turner, who hit .342 as a rookie in 2016, when he finished second in the ROY balloting. “That’s what you want. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, all these unbelievable players are expected to be that good, each and every year. He’s in that category of expecting great things from him.”
If you’re scoring at home, yes, Turner just compared his young teammate — who cracked the top 50 in ESPN’s MLBRank after just one season, finishing 35th, ahead of established stars such as George Springer and Anthony Rizzo — to two of the game’s best players. He isn’t the only one who has mentioned Soto’s name in proximity to the Millville Meteor.
“I played with another guy that was just like that, and his name was Mike Trout,” said Kendrick, who spent four years playing alongside Trout on the Angels. “I see a lot of those same similarities in Juan coming in every day, playing the game, plays it at a high level. Not quite as speedy as Mike Trout, but he does a lot of similar things that Mike does. Hopefully [he’ll] continue his success into the season and show us what type of player he’s really going to continue to be.”
The type of player Soto wants to be is the kind who gets noticed for his leather as much as his lumber. “Win a Gold Glove,” he said when asked his individual goals. It’s a lofty objective for a guy who has always been known for his stick. A guy who isn’t blessed with great wheels and whose minor league teammates nicknamed him “El Gamba” (Spanish for bowlegged). A guy who, prior to last season, had never played left field (he played exclusively right in the minors) and who accounted for minus-5 defensive runs saved as a rookie (among qualified left fielders, only Rhys Hoskins ranked lower).
Not surprisingly, defense and speed were points of emphasis this offseason for Soto, who spent most of the winter in his hometown of Santo Domingo, where we worked out with Mariners outfielder Domingo Santana and top Nats prospect Victor Robles. But that’s not what people talk about when they talk about Soto’s offseason. Instead, they home in on the ball he demolished in Japan. It looked like it was going to travel 500 feet but instead hit the roof of the Tokyo Dome and was called a ground-rule double.
“It’s one of the hardest I’ve hit,” said Soto, who grazed the roof not once but twice while playing an All-Star exhibition series in Japan in November. “I crush[ed] it.”
That isn’t the only thing Soto crushed last year. In 116 games with the Nationals, the powerful lefty hit 22 homers. He finished the season with a .923 OPS that would’ve ranked third in the National League — behind two guys named Yelich and Arenado — except he was eight plate appearances shy of qualifying. But what stuck out most to those who watched Soto on a regular basis was his plate discipline.
“What everyone strives for is to swing at good pitches and take bad ones. He can do it already,” Turner said of Soto, whose 79 walks last season ranked 10th in the NL and were the most ever by a teenager. “So I think he’ll be fine.”
That isn’t to say Soto’s a finished product at the plate. He’s well aware of how opposing pitchers adjusted to him over the course of the season — more fastballs up in the zone, more breaking balls down in the dirt — and expects that to continue.
“Pitchers [will] keep doing the same thing,” said Soto, who hit .229 on curves and sliders, 13 points below the league average against breaking stuff. “Try to get me in the same spot.”
Regardless of whether they get him, Soto isn’t concerned. He knows that, Bryce or no Bryce, the Nationals lineup — an attack that features Turner, Anthony Rendon and Adam Eaton, as well as new additions Brian Dozier, Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes — is deep and balanced. Plus, the rotation fronted by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and newcomer Patrick Corbin is among the best in baseball.
“We’re not just one player,” he said. “We are a team, so we’re going to keep working as a team. I don’t feel any pressure. I’m Juan Soto, but I’m part of the team.”