WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Juan Soto’s encore started just before 9 a.m. on Monday, when he walked into the Washington Nationals clubhouse, glanced around with an excited look on his face and, not sure what else to do, visited each locker to shake his teammates’ hands.
Soto’s 2018 was full of firsts. His first major league at-bat. His first home run. His first time stepping into the batter’s box as a feared middle-of-the-order presence once he became one of the best teenage hitters in baseball history. There is room for more of those this year, his 20-year-old season, and he added one as soon as he stepped into the clubhouse ready to meet a handful of players and reconnect with the rest.
He had arrived for his first major league spring training.
“It’s really good to see what a nice clubhouse here,” Soto said, laughter bubbling out of a big smile. “I’ve never been on this side. It feels pretty good being with these guys again. New year, starting from the first day. Feels pretty good.”
At this time last year, Soto was another talented kid on the minor league back fields, a 19-year-old outfielder still a few years away from his big league debut. Or so everyone thought.
The Nationals signed him for $1.5 million out of the Dominican Republic when he was 16. His name floated through conversations about the team’s long-term future. He was certainly a part of it. But he wasn’t ready. Not yet. Victor Robles, another young Dominican outfielder, was the organization’s unquestioned top prospect. Soto, after missing most of 2017 with a pair of injuries, got a handful of Grapefruit League at-bats and, when camp broke for the regular season, headed to Hagerstown, Md., to begin the year with the low-Class A Suns.
Then a string of injuries to Nationals outfielders, including Robles hyperextending his left elbow, led to Soto’s surprise call-up in mid-May. That led to him hitting 22 home runs, driving in 70 runs and piling up 79 walks, the most for any teenager since 1900, in 116 games. And all of that led him to finish second in voting for National League rookie of the year, to burst into the offseason with the confidence of a veteran and, after little more than a blink, become the player who could replace Bryce Harper as the centerpiece of the Nationals’ order.
In Soto baseball showed, yet again, the difference a year can make. Now he is tasked with continuing to make a difference.
“For me, it’s keeping him grounded,” Manager Dave Martinez said of what Soto may be capable of in Year 2. “The biggest thing for me is not to try to do more. Just go out there. He’s really good at taking his walks, and just playing the game. I want him to continue having fun and just play the game.”
His first morning of spring training included some housekeeping, as Soto leaped onto the red chair in front of his locker and started organizing bats on the top shelf. Pitchers and catchers reported Wednesday, and there was now a renewed energy with position players trickling in. New second baseman Brian Dozier settled in and introduced himself to the guys. Michael A. Taylor appeared in the room and, while looking at the sun through a long and skinny window, said, “Wow, it’s bright in here.” There were laughs. Everything felt fresh again.
Soto stayed fiddling with his new gear, balancing his bats just so, sticking a shiny red helmet in the back of his stall, straightening three boxes of cleats that hadn’t been opened. Once Soto looked up, and a small group of reporters circled around, Howie Kendrick found a window in the crowd and pointed a camera in Soto’s direction.
“This is for my book,” Kendrick said as he focused his lens. “That’s Juan Soto! If I put this on my Instagram, it’s going to blow up.”
Kendrick’s camera clicked away. Soto’s face became a light shade of red and, through a grin, he kept answering questions about what’s behind him and what may lie ahead.
“He’s happy, loves the game. He goes 0 for 4, he’s, ‘No big deal’ and right back at it,” Kendrick, a 35-year-old utility man, said later in the day. “I played with another guy that was just like that, and his name was Mike Trout. The guy came in and would play the game, wanted to win every day and just had a great attitude every single day. And I see a lot of those same similarities in Juan.”
The lofty comparisons are nothing new. Soto spent last summer approaching, or passing, numbers posted by Harper, Mel Ott, Ken Griffey Jr. or Mickey Mantle at the same age. He could be linked to Harper for years, because they both broke into the majors at 19 and there’s a chance Soto also settles into the third spot of the Nationals’ order. But Martinez doesn’t want Soto to feel pressure to be Harper or Griffey, or to reach any expectations set by his standout rookie year. He wants Soto to be himself, stay patient, keep looking for the best pitches to swing at, and take it from there.
And to help Soto not think so much about hitting, Martinez is going to challenge him in the field and on the base paths this spring. Soto is working on his arm strength in left field. He is always trying to get faster. If pitchers tweak their approach to him once the season begins, Soto and his coaches are confident he can make the next adjustment to remain far ahead.
“I told him, ‘Don’t put any numbers in your head,’ ” Martinez said, as if it were easy to avoid wondering what Soto can do with a year’s worth of experience. Maybe Soto can put that out of his mind. Everyone else is sure to have trouble.
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