Steven Souza’s emergence and other Nationals minor league notes

nationals90_image_thumbnailThe Nationals will travel to Kissimmee tonight to play the Astros, which meant the only baseball action this morning was happening on the minor league side of camp. As spring training winds down, the name that keeps coming up as a Nationals’ minor league poised to break out is outfielder Steven Souza.

“Steven Souza has been very, very impressive this spring, in all phases,” Director of Player Development Doug Harris said. “He’s swung the bat well. He’s defended well. He’s a very athletic kid.”

The Nationals drafted Souza in the third round in 2007, and he is one of those players who could be easy to cast aside because he has been in the organization for so long. But he’s still only 23, and after a winding path to where he is now, the Nationals view him as a future big leaguer. After finishing the 2012 season at Class A Potomac, Souza figures to start this season as the right fielder for Class AA Harrisburg.

Souza’s career has been bumpy at times. He was suspended for 50 games in 2010 for violating baseball’s drug rules. He struck out 131 times in 478 plate appearances for Potomac in 2011, and he began his 2012 season down a level in Low-A Hagerstown.

Last year, it clicked for him. He hit .297/.366/.572 with 23 home runs over 400 plate appearances between Hagerstown and, after a promotion, Potomac. He has a 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame, and still has the athleticism that allowed him to start his minor league career as a shortstop. In a nod to Souza’s size and speed, Harris said he’s the Nationals minor leaguer who middle infielders would least want to see breaking up a double play.

Souza’s power stands out. Today, Harris sat in a golf cart and watched Souza take batting practice. “That ball’s crushed,” he said, time and again. This weekend, facing Ross Ohlendorf in an intrasquad game, Souza blasted a home run over the batter’s eye in center field.

“He turned a corner,” another Nationals official said. “He’s had some ups and downs, but it looks like he figured it out. He’s a five-tool guy.”

Here’s a rundown of some other happenings:

>>> Left-hander Sammy Solis has yet to throw in a minor league game as he recovers from the Tommy John surgery he underwent a year ago, but he has thrown live batting practice and remains on track to return to an affiliate sometime this season.

Solis’s stock has been stagnant as he missed a full season recovering – out of sight, out of mind. But the Nationals still view him as a major part of their future.

“He’s doing very well,” Harris said. “We’re excited. He’s cutting it loose. I wouldn’t say that it’s top gear. We’re still building towards that. But there’s no restriction. It’s an aggressive BP.”

>>> Right-handed starter Nathan Karns has been participating at full capacity in minor league camp after he experienced tightness in his hip during his last few days in major league camp. He’ll be healthy enough to be ready for the season and likely will start the year at Class AA Harrisburg.

>>> Lefty reliever Bill Bray has yet to pitch in a minor league game as he tries to fix his mechanics and find his arm slot. The Nationals say he is making good progress, but the process is taking time. It seems more likely that Bray will start the year in extended spring training as opposed to Class AAA Syracuse, a timetable that helps further explain the Nationals’ recent signing of veteran J.C. Romero to a minor league deal.

>>> Nationals Assistant General Manager Bob Boone was walking between fields, overseeing the workout, when his cell phone went off. His ring tone is “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” How great is that?

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