WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It’s a wonder anyone around here lets Juan Soto so much as get a sip of water to rehydrate. The Washington Nationals might not have hired staff members to taste his food before he eats, but you get the sense that the Nats’ people want to encase Soto in bubble wrap and nudge him over to the Xerox machine, where they might be able to duplicate his 2018.
“I’m trying to keep my hands off him and say ‘Hi’ to him when he passes me in the hall,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
“He comes by, gives me a hug,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “I said, ‘What are you doing today?’ He said, ‘Four line drives up the middle.’ That’s all he thinks about.”
“Are there any big changes?” hitting coach Kevin Long said. “No. He knows that there’s not a whole lot of learning.”
A 20-year-old, without much to learn. Given what Soto accomplished as a rookie last season — not to mention his .368 batting average and .736 slugging percentage through Tuesday’s spring training games — there is an overwhelming temptation to figure out what he might become this year and beyond. It brings into the conversation heady names: Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Mel Ott, Tony Conigliaro and, ahem, Bryce Harper. The names and the numbers will make you lightheaded before the kid has stepped onto the field for his first Opening Day.
But as he stood at his locker last week following a Grapefruit League game that will be forgotten whenever Soto’s legacy is secure — and we’re talking decades from now — it was striking in a way few consider. Soto hit his first homer of the spring off Atlanta’s Kevin Gausman, an accomplished major leaguer. The shot tore through the wind, out to right. Yet his most impressive feat, to me: Three years after he first left the Dominican Republic, he calmly and completely answered questions from reporters in English.
Was he concerned that the power hadn’t yet come?
“Not at all,” he said. “I just tried to get ready a little bit, you know, like a process. Be step by step every day, and now I get it. Maybe I get some more.”
It’s worth pausing, as we wonder what’s possibly ahead for Soto, and considering the issues with which he has already dealt. And I’m not talking about laying off sliders in the dirt, a task he seems to have mastered already. It’s not the adjustments in baseball. It’s the adjustments in life.
“The guys that come from Latin America grow up in a different world,” said Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, whose hometown of Virginia Beach differs more than slightly from Soto’s hometown of Santo Domingo. “It’s hard to come over here. A lot of them don’t speak English that well. It’s intimidating.”
Soto seems anything but intimidated. The most common refrain when talking to baseball people about why he succeeded — at 19, after just eight games above Class A — is his preternatural patience. If he were to duplicate his .406 on-base percentage from 2018 this season, it’s impossible to think he won’t be wildly successful. Here are the 20-year-olds with plus-.400 OBPs: Ott (.449 in 1929), Ted Williams (.436 in 1939), Al Kaline (.421 in 1955) and Rodriguez (.414 in 1996). That’s it. Mike Trout (.399 in 2012) and Mickey Mantle (.394 in 1952) don’t make the cut.
In Nats camp, most believe Soto can.
“The strike zone, he’s got that,” Long said. “That’s a hard thing to teach. The swing, the mechanics of it, they’re as close to flawless as you can get. The sequence of his swing, the body position, the quiet head, the limited movements — it’s all there. If he swings at strikes, which he does, and the swing comes out, it plays.”
So we can expect it to play this season, which will be Soto’s first with a major league Opening Day, which follows his first major league spring training. We saw him for 116 games last year, when injuries necessitated a rush to Washington. A rushed player would have the game speed up on him. Soto slowed it down.
“Talent is talent,” Zimmerman said. “If you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, they don’t just call those guys up to call ’em up.”
“You threw him in the middle of the lineup on a contending team and put him in a position that he’d never played before in his life,” Rizzo said. “You throw those type of things at a 19-year-old player, it’s remarkable that he had the season that he had. It was almost borderline unfair that we put him out in left field.”
Look, there we have it! An area where Soto might improve!
“I told him: ‘Hey, defense and base running,’ ” Martinez said. “‘Those are the two things I really want you to hone in on this spring.’”
Defense and base running. What wonderful things to concentrate on. They’re the concerns, because the hitting — shhhhh! — almost shouldn’t be discussed. (Quietly, before the season started, we’ll remind you that the rankings in on-base-plus-slugging percentage among 19-year-olds with at least 400 plate appearances go thusly: Soto’s .923, Ott’s .921, Conigliaro’s .883, Harper’s .817. That’s all-time. But don’t tell anyone, lest word get back to Soto and he becomes pressured by his spot in history.)
So he can’t possibly improve. Can he?
“My approach to that is just being the same,” Soto said. “You keep being the same, you’re going to see everything. I don’t know how they’re going to work me now, but I’m going to be ready for it.”
From what he has shown and how he has acted, he is ready for it. He takes the pitches he should take. He answers questions in his second language. He is Juan Soto, 20 years old, with a future that’s both untold and wildly anticipated.