Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo has a spotless first-round draft record. Nearly every pick the Nationals have made under his watch, which began in 2009, has made the major leagues. The only exceptions are 2016 first pick Carter Kieboom, who is well on his way to the majors, and 2017 first-rounder Seth Romero. Romero is threatening the trend.
The Nationals sent the prospect home from spring training after what the organization called violations of team rules but what people familiar with the situation described as repeated curfew violations — nothing that would violate MLB rules, but something about which Rizzo and others had warned Romero repeatedly. Minor league spring training began in the first week of March. By March 6, the Nationals had sent Romero home to Houston. He is still there.
A person familiar with the situation said the Nationals outlined a list of things the 22-year-old must do to earn his way back into a minor league clubhouse. He is doing his best to comply with those prerequisites, and the Nationals expect him back with one of their affiliates this season. Romero finished last season with short-season Auburn. He has pitched in seven professional games, allowing 12 runs in 22 innings.
Evaluators inside and outside the organization believed Romero had big league-ready stuff when the Nationals drafted him with the 25th pick last summer. The question about Romero, and the reason he fell despite having top-10 talent, was his maturity. He was kicked off the University of Houston baseball team for a number of issues, problems that reportedly included a failed drug test, posing in uniform with drug paraphernalia and fighting a teammate. The Nationals took the risk but made clear to Romero and his agent, Scott Boras, that they would expect better. They will give him another chance to do better but do not feel he has earned that opportunity yet.
With Victor Robles out, Juan Soto is gaining notice
The Nationals’ top prospect, Victor Robles, hyperextended his non-throwing elbow in the first week of the season and will not return until long after the all-star break, if all goes well. Although he avoided the worst possible outcome — an injury that would have required Tommy John surgery — Robles’s recovery is best measured in months, not weeks. Had he been healthy, he would have been starting in the majors right now because of a slew of injuries to Nationals left field candidates.
But in his absence, Juan Soto has been rocketing up prospect boards and earning notice with a torrid start that helped earn him a mid-April promotion from Class A Hagerstown to Class A Advanced Potomac. Soto is hitting .341 with a 1.175 OPS across the two levels.
Soto is 19. He has yet to complete a full season of professional baseball; he spent the 2016 season in short-season ball, then was injured for much of 2017. Even so, his current career numbers (accumulated in Gulf Coast League play, short-season A ball and now both levels of full-season A ball) include a .358 batting average and a 1.003 OPS.
Though he is off to a slightly slower start in the Carolina League, where pitching staffs know their opponents in and out and have only seven opposing lineups to learn, Soto is still earning notice from national prospect evaluators. He is a long shot for a September call-up this season, particularly with a glut of more experienced young outfielders ahead of him. But not many hitters have shown the ability to climb the organizational rankings like Soto.