When Nationals scouts first laid eyes on 16-year-old Juan Soto in the Dominican Republic, they knew they were looking at a special player.
Five years later, Soto just completed what should have been his first MVP season as he's become a terror to pitchers around the league, winning the National League batting title with a .351 average over 47 games, while also leading all of Major League Baseball in on-base percentage (.490), slugging (.695) and OPS (1.185).
Finishing 2020 with 13 homers, 37 RBI and 41 bases on balls, had Soto not missed the first eight games of the season due to what was believed to be a false-positive COVID-19 test, the slugger would have been a runaway winner for NL MVP in his age 21 season.
Soto has proven to be such a pure hitter, he's drawing comparisons to some of the real greats of the game, the likes of Ken Griffey, Jr. and Albert Pujols, players with the generational tandem of power and knowledge of the strike zone early in their careers.
Soto isn't another Bryce Harper, to be sure, whose homers come in bunches before his bat goes quiet for the next month. This is someone who hits for average as well as he does power, whose bat sets up shop in the strike zone until it makes contact with a flying object.
His third MLB season revealed he has no apparent weaknesses at the plate — he can hit it up in the zone, down, inside and away — a trait that's so rare it makes him an absolute nightmare to whoever's delivering the pitch (on the off chance they do pitch to him).
There is no safe place to pitch Soto, who began driving pitches – with power – to the opposite field this season, after pitchers adjusted to him destroying everything inside the season prior. Soto is a force to be reckoned with, and there is no safe haven from his unrelenting power besides a free pass to first base.
If the Nationals this offseason can find someone to protect Soto in the lineup again — just as some combination of Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman/Howie Kendrick/Asdrubal Cabrera/Matt Adams did in 2019 — look out.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo — making his final appearance of 2020 on The Sports Junkies, presented by Burke & Herbert Bank — was asked this week what he was thinking the first time he saw Soto as an international prospect.
“When you're looking at a player like these international players, like Juan and (Victor) Robles, and guys in the past like Carlos Gonzalez and all those guys we did in Arizona, you're looking at a 15-and-a-half-year-old player, 16-year-old player and kind of projecting what this guy's gonna look like in two, two-and-a-half, three years, and what kind of skill set does he have and that type of thing,” Rizzo said.
“The thing that stuck out about Juan was his hitting acumen was really off the charts for a 16-year-old player that I've ever been around,” he continued. “We've signed some good ones in the past — like I said, Carlos Gonzalez, Gerardo Parra, Miguel Montero, those are three that come to the top of my head — as young kids, young hitters, but this guy knew the strike zone as soon as we saw him.”
“It was kind of ingrained into his skill set at an early age,” he said. “He had a very nice stroke, he had good bat speed, balance at the plate — everything you look at in a young hitter, and you had to project the other tools.”
The Nats GM says Soto wasn’t a particularly good runner and his physicality was more on par with a normal 16-year-old, the only potential downsides they saw.
“We thought we'd have to teach him a position,” he said. “But the bat was fairly special when we first laid eyes on him.”
Asked to clarify what he meant by physicality, Rizzo defined it as muscular build.
“Like any other 15-and-a-half, 16-year-old player, they're certainly not where they're going to be at 21, 22, 23 years old,” he said. “So you kind of have to project that.”
And indeed they did. Soto has grown from a normal-sized teenager into a 6-foot-1, 220-pound mammoth at the plate, an imposing figure who snarls as he shuffles his feet, staring down the pitcher like an angry bull ready to snare a matador.
“You take a lot of things into account,” Rizzo said. “What do the parents look like? What do the siblings look like? That type of thing. With some of the players, like a Luis (Garcia), you have kind of a snapshot of him. His dad played in the big leagues and we knew what he probably could look like as a 23-year-old. So you have to get to know the families, and the history, and the genetics and that type of thing."
Soto also won’t be plagued with any ‘but he can’t win it all’ narratives, as many exceptional, young hitters (Mike Trout) are. He took care of that one in his very first postseason, at the ripe young age of 21.
Soto delivered the game-winning hit in his first postseason game ever, lifting Washington over Milwaukee amidst a euphoric sea of red at Nationals Park to send his club to the NLDS against the Dodgers.
He delivered the game-tying homer off of Clayton Kershaw, who he came out of the pen in the eighth inning of an elimination Game 5, opening the door for Kendrick’s thrilling go-ahead and ultimately game-winning grand slam in the 10th.
And Soto delivered in the World Series, beginning in Game 1 when he took Gerrit Cole oppo boppo (to the train tracks!) to tie it in the fourth. In total, Soto hit three bombs with seven RBI, while hitting .333 with a 1.178 OPS in the seven-game World Series, the epitome of clutch on the biggest stage.
Soto is going to be a problem for many years to come, and it all began with that first sighting in 2015, when the Nationals realized they had a future star in their presence.