After years of cautiously spending on young international talent, the Nationals made their biggest-ever signing on Thursday, inking 16-year-old Dominican outfielder Juan Soto to $1.5 million. Until now, the most the Nationals had ever spent on a Latin American teenager was $1.4 million in 2006 for Esmailyn Gonzalez, whose false identity was later discovered and led to the firing of then-general manager Jim Bowden, put Mike Rizzo in charge and prompted an overhaul of the team’s international operations.
But under international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals have slowly rebuilt their Latin American presence. They spent $900,000 on Dominican infield prospect Anderson Franco two years ago but have mostly been thrifty, scouting for hidden talent to develop such as Wilmer Difo, Reynaldo Lopez and Pedro Severino. The Nationals, however, felt Soto was worth the relatively large investment.
“We’ll spend money when we feel it is legit,” DiPuglia said. “You’re signing a 16-year-old kid, essentially a sophomore in high school. The evaluation process is different. We did our due diligence. … If we find guys like that, and everyone is on bard, we’ll be aggressive. If not, we’ll back off.”
Baseball America listed Soto as the No. 13 international prospect available, while MLB.com rated him at No. 22. Thursday was the official first day of the 2015-2016 international signing period. The signing was first reported by MLB.com.
Soto was scouted and evaluated by DiPuglia and Rizzo, along with other top Nationals scouts such as Kasey McKeon and Terry Wetzel. The Nationals loved Soto’s swing and advanced approach at the plate. Soto, from the capital Santo Domingo, is listed at 6 feet 1 and 175 pounds and projects as a corner outfielder.
“We think he’s the best left-handed hitter on the market,” DiPuglia said. “He understands using the whole field. And has good balance at the plate. You’re looking for guys that can hit and he’s got great makeup, too. And ultimately, we think he’s going to have some power.”
Soto’s signing may appear to signal the Nationals’ renewed interest in the international market, but they have slowly built up to this point. Franco’s signing two years ago was an aggressive step. They moved to a newer and better academy in the baseball talent-rich Dominican last year. Plus, they have proven adept at finding and developing cheaper talent.
The Nationals officially signed only one other player on Thursday: 16-year-old Dominican shortstop Luis Aquino to a $200,000 deal. He is the nephew of former Nationals shortstop Cristian Guzman. Aquino is undersized — 5-11, 150 pounds — but the Nationals liked his family pedigree, speed, switch-hitting skills and athleticism to play the middle infield.
The Nationals plan to stay within their small international signing-bonus allotment. They have the second-smallest bonus pool ($1.985 million) and would incur penalties if they go over. Only the Angels have a smaller allotment ($1.968 million), which is based on reverse order of winning percentage from the previous year. While some teams have gone far over their bonus pools to take advantage of a system that could change with an international draft in the future, the Nationals remain cautious for now with an eye toward perhaps being more aggressive in the future.
“We’re not gonna go over,” DiPuglia said. “If we’re gonna go over, we’ll trade [for bonus pool money].”