FILE - In this March 7, 2019, file photo, Washington Nationals left fielder Juan Soto (22) looks to the outfield after batting in the fourth inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game in West Palm Beach, Fla. Soto, last season's surprise runner-up as NL Rookie of the Year at age 19, has a big hole to fill in the Nationals' lineup with Bryce Harper gone. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Surprise star as teen, Soto helps Nats move on after Harper

March 14, 2019 - 2:52 pm

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — It might seem as if Juan Soto has a big hole to fill in the Washington Nationals' lineup, what with Bryce Harper gone.

Soto is not the sort to worry about that type of thing, though. Last season's surprise runner-up as NL Rookie of the Year at age 19, he's carefree and self-believing as can be, by all accounts.

Which is good, because he could very well be the No. 3 hitter for Washington, counted on to make the offense go. Everyone around Soto seems to think he'll be up for whatever challenges Year 2 brings.

"He's as ready as you could possibly be at, shoot, 20 years old," Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said Thursday, before Soto homered for the second consecutive exhibition game. "He has a very mature approach — the way he prepares. He loves doing all the work behind the scenes. He's always in the cage or in the weight room. Keeps his head down. He's a quiet guy, by nature, and he doesn't seek out the spotlight."

Young as he is, Soto sounds like an old soul, speaking about the "process" of spring training during his first taste of big league camp — he started last season, believe it or not, at low-A ball — and getting ready for the regular season "step by step, every day."

Asked whether he can improve on what he showed last year, Soto crossed his arms and replied: "My approach with that is: just the same."

The Nationals certainly would take more of the same.

Soto made his debut last May after all of eight games at Double-A and he hit .292 with 22 homers, 25 doubles and 70 RBIs in only 116 games. He walked a whopping 79 times, helping produce a .406 on-base percentage. His slugging percentage was .517. His three multihomer games were the most by a teenager in big league history.

"I don't see any difference from where he was last year to where he is this year. If I had to say anything, maybe a little bit more confident, that he knows he belongs here," manager Dave Martinez said. "And that's a good feeling."

No one is too worried about Soto's hitting. The two key areas that need shoring up: defense and baserunning.

Martinez knows it. So does Soto, who learned left field on the fly in Washington a year ago, having played only seven games there in the minors, where he usually was in right or center.

Every morning in Florida, Soto said, he puts in extra work with his glove.

"It was almost borderline unfair that we put him out in left field, but it was by necessity," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "What he has shown us, in so many different ways, is the mental maturity and the outstanding makeup of a superstar player. And he is not satisfied."

The quality that stands out to everyone is Soto's discipline at the plate, something he began honing at the prompting of a hitting coach in the minors.

"He doesn't swing unless it's a strike. That's pretty impressive. Pretty hard to do at the highest level when you're a teenager," Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said.

Turner thinks that skill will help Soto "counteract" whatever adjustments opposing pitchers make when facing him this season.

"We saw last year that his approach at the plate is really, really advanced. You don't see him over-swing and get outside of his mechanics and try to do too much," Doolittle said. "You see him use the whole field. You see him really dial it in with two strikes. It lends itself to giving himself a good chance to follow up and pick up where he left off. I'm excited to see what he does next."

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