(Photo Credit: REUTERS/BRAD MILLS)
The Washington Nationals are in a bad place. While they’ve recovered from a bad April to get their record back above .500 and to within touching distance of the upstart Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, this was not how the season was supposed to go. With Bryce Harper in his contract year and Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg still headlining their rotation, the expectation was another runaway division win and a serious stab at a World Series title before the window potentially closes.
Their struggles have been exacerbated by a rash of injuries, particularly to the outfield. While Harper and centerfielder Michael A. Taylor have stayed upright, but there have been problems in left. Adam Eaton ripped up the first week of the season, but, like last year, has been felled by a critical injury. Ankle problems present since last year’s torn ACL have caused complications, eventually requiring surgery to remove torn scar tissue and remove excess bone that was causing extreme discomfort.
Eaton was transferred to the 60-day disabled list and won’t be ready until the end of June at the earliest. Utility man Howie Kendrick was filling in there until last week when he tore his Achilles tendon and ended his season.
That would likely have been the cue for Victor Robles, the No. 5 ranked prospect in baseball, to come out from Triple-A—but Robles was also on the shelf long-term, having suffered an elbow injury in April that was, thankfully, not as serious as it first looked.
There were few other options, but the Nationals still surprised most of baseball by calling up their No. 2 prospect, outfielder Juan Soto. The 19-year-old had yet to play above Double-A, but made a huge first impression, hitting a three-run home run on the first pitch of his first major league at-bat.
So what do we know about this precocious teenager? Let’s take a look at his brief professional career and what his career might bring.
A native of the Dominican Republic, Soto was signed by the Nationals as a 16-year-old in 2015. He was given a whopping $1.5m signing bonus, at the time a team record for an international free agent his age.
He impressed so much in camps in his homeland that the Nats decided to send him for his professional debut the next year. He rewarded their faith, and was named MVP of the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, and earned a cup of coffee at Short-A Auburn in the New York-Penn League.
A bump and a rise
Soto was so impressive in 2016 that last year he bypassed the NYPL and was placed straight into Class-A Hagerstown. He came out of the gate fast, slashing .360/.427/.523 in 23 games before injuring his ankle sliding into a base. He started a rehab assignment in July but suffered a setback, then endured another in September. In all, he only played 32 games total between Hagerstown and the GCL on rehab.
Delayed a year by his injury, Soto returned to Hagerstown to begin the 2018 season. In just over two weeks worth of games, he sported a .373/.486/.814 batting line with five home runs and 24 RBI. Immediately aware that the South Atlantic League could not contain him, the Nats promoted him to Advanced-A Potomac of the Carolina League. It only took him two more weeks to earn another promotion, hitting seven home runs in 15 games.
His next stop was Double-A Harrisburg. In his first week in the high minors, he went 10 for 31 with two homers and 10 RBI before Kendrick got hurt and the Nationals called him up to the main roster. He became the first player born in 1998 to play in the major leagues, and the youngest to homer in the major leagues since Texas’ Jurickson Profar, who was 13 days younger than Soto was when he hit his first major league home run.
What to expect
Unlike a lot of top prospects, Soto's immediate fate is a little uncertain.
Long-term, and barring more injuries, Soto profiles to be a very productive major league outfielder. He's only 19 and his power potential, from a physical perspective, isn't anywhere close to developed, and even if it doesn't turn elite, he has a good enough bat to contend for a batting championship or two. If he and Robles reach their full potential, the Nats could lose Harper this winter and not feel it quite so badly as most people think they will.
But in the short term, things are less clear. Eaton's return will mean elite-level competition for his lineup spot and if the veteran can get back on his feet and produce like we know he can, it may be better for Soto's development to be sent back to the minors so he can play every day.
Of course, Soto could put up the numbers that could create a Wally Pipp situation, or he could drop off in the short-term. Keep in mind, he's only 19.
Juan Soto may or may not stay on the major league roster for the whole year, but make no mistake: we'll see him in a Nationals uniform for good sooner rather than later.
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