WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It was easy to pass off as lip service, maybe a joke, the sort of quote an athlete gives when he wants an interview to end. Juan Soto’s spring training goal is to make the Opening Day roster? Soto, the Washington Nationals’ best hitter, a full-on phenom, really thinks his spot is not secure?
“Right now, it’s the same mentality. You’ve got to make the team. I come here to make the team,” Soto said Monday. “I’m going to fight for my place. I’m going to keep working hard, keep playing baseball the right way, because it’s a lot of new players, a lot of new outfielders, and you don’t want to get comfortable."
He hit 34 home runs and had 110 RBI last season. He crushed three homers in the World Series and finished it with a .333 batting average, all while introducing himself to the world. He is, at 21, one of the most feared batters in baseball. His routine at the plate, coined the “Soto shuffle,” is featured in the newest “MLB The Show” video game. If he is not yet a superstar — though you could argue he is — it shouldn’t take long. Nothing in his career has.
But here Soto was, starting his second big league camp, saying he will work to play left field, and hit third or fourth in the order, and be there March 26 at Citi Field in New York when the Nationals face the Mets. The reporters around him smiled. A few even laughed. Soto, though, kept a straight face while waiting for the next question. He wasn’t messing around. This “mentality” is all he knows.
Just go back to July 2015, in Soto’s home country of the Dominican Republic, to the day he was signed. Soto was only 16. He agreed to a $1.5 million bonus, the largest the Nationals had given to an international player. His family was ecstatic. He could not wait to get going. But before he did, and before the ink was dry, he got a message from Johnny DiPuglia.
“I signed you to replace you,” DiPuglia told him. “So don’t get comfortable.”
DiPuglia was then the Nationals’ director of international relations, and he is now an assistant general manager overseeing that department. That line — I signed you to replace you — was not reserved for Soto. He had used it with shortstop Wilmer Difo, catcher Pedro Severino and center fielder Victor Robles. He would use it with shortstop Luis Garcia and Andry Lara, a Venezuelan right-hander whom Washington signed last summer.
On Tuesday, at the Nationals’ complex in West Palm Beach, DiPuglia pointed at Soto and repeated the words. He has not found a player to replace Soto, and odds are he never will. But Soto has not forgotten.
“Juan won’t change,” DiPuglia said. “We try to teach those kids, right away, that you have to keep earning every opportunity, every game, every at-bat. If you teach them to be hungry, they stay hungry. That’s all it is."
Last spring, after Soto had one of the best age-19 seasons ever, he vowed to improve his defense and base running. Then he became a Gold Glove finalist and finished 2019 with 12 steals. In October, when he was struggling at the plate, he asked hitting coach Kevin Long for a midnight session in the batting cage. Then he raked until Washington won the World Series. And last month, in a group interview at Nationals Winterfest, he first stated his plan of making the 2020 roster.
Then he doubled down upon arriving in Florida.
“I like that he’s thinking that way,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “We talk about complacency, and when he makes comments like that, I know where he’s at. That’s a good thing.”
Martinez went on to say Soto will play left field. Everyone knows that, including Soto himself, even if he intends to keep coy. He is the key to a lineup that lost Anthony Rendon in the offseason. Last year, Rendon finished third in MVP voting, Soto finished ninth, and they formed the league’s best three-four punch. Now Soto is not sure who will hit in front of him, or behind him, or what kind of pitches he’ll see as a third-year player.
The scouting reports will get more detailed. The book on him, as always, will be to tempt him with low breaking balls, over and over, until pitchers have to give in. Soto has proved, over and over, that he is patient enough to get his pitch. He has hit 56 homers in 1,153 plate appearances. All but 13 of them have come off some kind of fastball. It is possible that, without Rendon in front of him, and with uncertainty about who will hit behind him, opponents will have many more chances to avoid his bat.
“It’s not about one player. It’s about the team,” Soto said when asked about a lack of protection. “You’ve got to come here and play as a team.”
You also have to come here and make the team. Even when you’re Juan Soto.
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