In other organizations, what Washington Nationals prospect Steven Souza Jr. is doing at Class AAA Syracuse would have merited a call-up and extended trial in the major leagues. Souza, in his first season at the highest level of the minors, is producing stunning numbers.
The 25-year-old outfielder is hitting .358, best in all of Class AAA. His on-base percentage, .433, tops the International League. He is slugging just under .600. His 1.023 on-base plus slugging percentage is more than 150 points better than the second-best player in the league. He has clubbed 15 home runs, stolen 22 bases and terrorized pitchers.
“It’s very impressive what he’s been able to accomplish,” Nationals director of player development Mark Scialabba said. “It’s not just a month. It’s been the entire season.”
But because the Nationals have three everyday outfielders — Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Denard Span — and two veteran backups — Nate McLouth and Scott Hairston — there is no room for Souza in the majors. His hot hitting earned him two brief stints in the majors already this season. The combination of his speed and power in a 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame and his continued production tantalizes the imagination.
“Sometimes it’s hard to believe,” Souza said. “It’s one of those things you can’t really stop and look at the numbers. I just keep going and focus on the process.”
Souza’s hitting at Class AA Harrisburg last season — .300/.396/.557 with 15 home runs and 20 stolen bases — was strong, but he managed to improve. Since he adjusted his approach at the plate under minor league hitting coach Mark Harris in 2012, Souza has taken off. And even though he was new to Class AAA pitching, Souza changed nothing. He doesn’t view an at-bat as a battle against a pitcher but as “me against the ball.”
“If you put all the pitchers in a barrel, they all kind of have the same stuff. It’s just mixed in different pitches,” he added. “One guy may have a 97-mph fastball with a slider. Another may have a curveball. I just try and group them together. I don’t try and adjust to them. I try to make them adjust to me.”
What has impressed Nationals officials about Souza the most is his approach and ability to maintain it. He is aggressive but selective; he has cut down his strikeout rate and has nearly as many punchouts (60) as walks (43). Even when he is behind in the count, he is hitting .284. He is hitting right-handers (1.039 OPS) as well as left-handers (.967 OPS).
“It’s going to sound ridiculous, but I just go up there and try to see it and hit it,” Souza said. “I don’t try to do too much. I realize some of the gifts that God has given me. Some strength where I can mis-hit a ball and it can go a long ways. And I can get away with hitting some balls, maybe a bloop over the second baseman or shortstop. I just try and take my hits. And when you see me jumpy, you’ll see me scuffling a little bit. I just try to see it and hit it. Bring it back to the little league days.”
A strength of the Nationals’ farm system is pitching and outfield prospects. Along with Souza, Harrisburg’s Michael A. Taylor and Syracuse’s Destin Hood are enjoying terrific seasons. Prospect Bran Goodwin’s development has lagged, but he is only 23 in his first season at Syracuse. The composition of the major league outfield will be an interesting challenge for the organization.
The Nationals hold a $9 million team option for Span in 2015, which could be a relative bargain for an elite defensive center fielder, solid base runner and extra-base hitter. And with this season potentially being first baseman Adam LaRoche’s final one in Washington, will Ryan Zimmerman’s future home be in left field or at first? The futures of the Nationals’ outfield prospects hinge on those decisions.
“We have a team where there’s not a lot of open positions,” Scialabba said. “From an ability standpoint, Souza is ready to contribute at the major league level. It’s just the opportunity. It’s a matter of time.”
The Nationals have worked to improve Souza’s versatility. He has played all three outfield positions in the past, and his future may be in right field, but around May, the Nationals began playing him more in center field at Syracuse. He has worked with minor league outfield coordinator Gary Thurman on improving his jumps in center and bouncing side to side before every pitch like a tennis player, ready to run in any direction, instead of stepping forward.
“I’m starting to feel comfortable in center,” he said. “I feel I’m getting to balls that early on I didn’t get to because my jumps are getting better. . . . And carrying over to right, it’s actually helped being smooth with my jumps and getting a ball a little deeper in the gap.”
Souza endured a long road to this point. Three years ago, after a suspension for violating the league’s drug policy and being benched by his manager, Souza quit baseball and went home to his native Washington state. He had a change of heart, reconciled with the Nationals, rebuilt his life through his faith and turned himself into a prospect. He wants to be in the majors but is exercising patience.
“If you take all that stuff out, everything has happened really fast,” he said. “In that sense, it feels like it’s been forever, but it’s really only been a couple years since I’ve started rolling. I’ve waited my whole life for an opportunity. I can wait a couple more months.”