BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic — Modesto Ulloa usually doesn’t work on Sundays, but he reports to a ballpark if someone he trusts calls insisting there is a player he must see. He doesn’t like to say no. Maybe he’ll find a star. There’s always a chance. So a few years ago the Washington Nationals’ most experienced scout in the Dominican Republic arrived on a Sunday to watch a left-handed pitcher top out at 82 mph over three innings. The performance piqued Ulloa’s interest. He decided to stay for a second game even though he knew the lefty wouldn’t pitch again.
At some point during that second game, a hitter smashed a line drive to right-center field, where the center fielder smoothly ran over for the catch — so smoothly Ulloa had to ask those around him for the youngster’s name. It was Juan Soto, the left-handed pitcher from the first game, they told him. He’s a good hitter, too, they said.
“So I stayed and saw three at-bats,” Ulloa said recently in Spanish. “He got three hits. From then on, I never left him alone.”
Soto isn’t a pitcher anymore. He is a 19-year-old hit machine the Nationals signed for a then-club record $1.5 million bonus in July 2015 in hopes that he would eventually assume a corner outfield spot in Washington. Two full seasons into his professional career — despite appearing in just 83 games and none above Class A Hagerstown — Soto appears to be on a path to the big leagues because his hitting ability, scouts and officials insist, is extraordinary.
“He’s probably our best hitter in the minor leagues that we have right now,” Nationals Vice President of International Operations Johnny DiPuglia said.
Soto’s primary obstacle since signing has been staying healthy. A fractured ankle and surgery on his right hand limited him to just 32 games between Hagerstown and the Gulf Coast League last season. He produced when he played — he batted .351 with a .919 on-base-plus-slugging percentage across the two levels — but played in just nine games after May 2.
“Last year was a year filled with experiences,” Soto said recently in Spanish. “A lot of laughter, tears, a little bit of everything. I felt, at first, bad because I wanted to help my team and continue moving forward after my great start. But that was the way God wanted it to happen and that’s what I had to deal with.”
Soto’s blend of skill and misfortune has produced a wide range of spots on baseball’s annual prospect rankings lists. Three major lists have been revealed over the past month, and each has a different take on Soto’s place among baseball’s top minor leaguers; Baseball America ranked him No. 56, MLB.com slotted him No. 29, and Baseball Prospectus had him at No. 22.
“If he plays a full year, I think there’s going to be surprising things coming out of that guy,” DiPuglia said. “He’s very mature. One of the most mature young Latin players I’ve ever been around as far as spending his money, what he does for a plan, how he approaches the game. . . . He loves the game. He has an advanced [strike] zone knowledge and he’s the kind of kid you’d want to marry your daughter. He’s just a great kid. And he can hit. He’s an outstanding hitter. So I think if he plays a full year, I think this guy really goes up the charts.”
The Nationals, of course, have their own evaluation system, and they hold Soto, their consensus No. 2 prospect behind Victor Robles, in high regard — so much that they have refused to make him available to the Miami Marlins as part of a trade package for catcher J.T. Realmuto. The Nationals envision Soto as a middle-of-the-order run producer from the left side, which the club may need after Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy become free agents next winter. Soto played mostly right field in 2017, but DiPuglia said he believes he will settle in left field in the majors.
“Right now the area I want to improve most on is my defense,” Soto said. “I’d like to improve my speed so I can be a better outfielder. I’d like to develop more as a fielder so I’m not just limited to right field and can play left field easily.”
As for a player comparison, DiPuglia pointed to a left-handed corner outfielder who starred for the New York Yankees during their dynasty in the 1990s.
“People think I’m crazy when I say this, but he reminds me a lot of Paul O’Neill,” DiPuglia said. “When I say Paul O’Neill, people, the hair on their arms doesn’t stand up, but Paul O’Neill had a hell of a career. . . . Something about him reminds me of Paul O’Neill. Maybe he’ll be better than him. But if he turns out to be Paul O’Neill, I’ll be happy.”
The Nationals are years away from finding out. Maybe it doesn’t happen; most prospects never pan out as envisioned. But club officials steadfastly believe Soto will become an impactful big leaguer if he can stay on the field and develop. They believe Ulloa found a star that Sunday afternoon.