VIERA, Fla. — In the fall of 2011, Washington Nationals prospect Steven Souza Jr. quit the sport he loved and the team that drafted him. He had already served a suspension for violating baseball’s drug policy and been benched by his manager. So rather than report to the team’s offseason instructional league in Florida, he went home to Everett, Wash.
Souza contacted major college coaches about playing football. The responses were positive, but “once I got the e-mails back, I had a reality check,” he said Tuesday morning. “Do I really want to do this?”
Now, at 24, he is at his first major league spring training and is a legitimate prospect in the Nationals’ system. His speed and power have caught the eye of Manager Matt Williams.
“He’s a man,” Williams said of the 6-foot-4, 225-pound outfielder. “He understands the game. He’s aggressive. . . . I’ve been impressed with his makeup first and foremost, and the way he’s played this spring, he’s been great.”
Souza has arrived here after a long journey. At Cascade High, he was a star baseball player but also played two years on the football team as a wide receiver and cornerback. He had a scholarship to play baseball at Washington State, which was going to let him play football, too. But when the Nationals drafted him as a shortstop in the third round in 2007, he chose to sign.
“There was something about baseball,” he said. “It always drew to me.”
Souza struggled, posting batting averages of .194, .213 and .237 in his first three professional seasons. He struck out 116 times in 126 games at Class A Hagerstown in 2009. An 0-for-4 game would affect his performance the next day.
“You go from hitting .600 in high school every day to failing seven out of 10 times and not being able to handle that failure,” he said. “I didn’t have anything to go to. I got really frustrated. Every game was the end of the world to me.”
Souza began developing bad habits off the field. As an 18-year-old drafted out of high school, he was given a $346,000 signing bonus.
“You get distractions with money, you get around the wrong people, you’re going out a lot,” he said. “My focus was not on the game and not on the right things.”
While with Hagerstown in 2010, he was suspended 50 games for taking a banned stimulant. When he returned the following season, he tried hard to prove he was a new man. Other personal issues weighed him down. “I was in a really bad place,” he said.
Before high-Class A Potomac’s final playoff game in 2011, then-Manager Matt LeCroy benched Souza for violating team rules. Souza said he handled it poorly, pouted and got into an argument with LeCroy. He called Doug Harris, the Nationals’ farm director at the time, and told him he was quitting the organization.
“This is weird to say, but I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Souza said. “. . . Once baseball was taken away, it was kind of my identity, as a baseball player. Wherever I went, in my home town or among my friends, I was the man. I had this upper-echelon level. Once it was taken away from me, I had to check myself. I need to make a change in my life not just baseball-wise, but my outlook on life.”
Souza also decided he wanted to return to baseball. He apologized to Nationals officials, and his road to redemption began the following spring at Hagerstown.
Between Hagerstown and Potomac in 2012, Souza hit .297 with 23 home runs and a .938 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He played mostly right field after years of bouncing around between shortstop, third base and first. Working with Hagerstown hitting coach Mark Harris, Souza cut down on his strikeouts, shortened his swing and vowed to put the ball in play more so he could use his speed.
Last season, Souza posted a .300 average with 15 home runs, 20 stolen bases and a .953 OPS in 77 games with Class AA Harrisburg. He stole 10 bases in 11 games in the Arizona Fall League.
“I’m just impressed with how he’s matured,” said LeCroy, who is now the Nationals’ bullpen coach. “To come out here in big league camp, and [he] is holding himself really well as a player and as a young guy here in camp. Just shows a lot how he’s grown up, and that maturity is going to take him to the top.”
Souza may be among the best pure athletes in camp. He has a 371 / 2-inch vertical leap, said he ran the 60-yard dash in around 6.5 seconds and can bench press 365 pounds. As an outfielder, Souza feels he can let his athleticism shine.
“Once I got out to the outfield, it honestly reminded me of playing receiver,” Souza said. “You’re going and catching a pass in the gap and running down balls. It was also my ability to use my arm again.”
On Nov. 1, the Nationals added Souza to their 40-man roster. It was a minor transaction during a long offseason, but to Souza it was an emotional night. His dream of reaching the major leagues was one step closer. Only two years before, he almost threw away those aspirations entirely.
“I’m super thankful,” Souza said. “. . . I want to come in and help this team win, but wherever God puts me, on this team or in Syracuse [in Class AAA] or wherever, I’m just thankful for where I am at this point. I’m so thankful.”