Mike Rizzo on Soto: 'Ceiling is limitless'

March 5th, 2020

Johnny DiPuglia -- the Nationals’ VP and assistant GM of international operations, and so one of those who saw and all of his possibilities first -- was seated in the lobby of the Nats’ Spring Training office, waiting for his parents to arrive on Thursday morning. When he saw me, he asked why I was there. I told him I was on my way upstairs to visit with the team’s big baseball boss, Mike Rizzo, and talk about Soto.

DiPuglia smiled and said, “The Latin Mamba.”

A few minutes later I was with Rizzo, one of the great baseball men, in his office overlooking the field at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on the first-base side, and asking him if there is a brighter young talent in the game than his left fielder.

“I don’t get into ‘the best this’ or ‘the brightest that,’” Rizzo said. “But let me put it this way: If there’s a team photo of the best players in our game, he’s in it.”

A few minutes later, after we talked about what Soto did last October -- when Rizzo said he was the Nationals’ MVP if you looked at their entire postseason -- Rizzo said this:

“I honestly believe this young man has the chance to be the face of Major League Baseball someday. And I believe he’s the face of Latin baseball already.”

Then Rizzo was reliving one of the best baseball Octobers any team has ever had, as the Nationals were writing an ending to one of the best baseball stories of them all. We starting by talking about Soto’s home run against Clayton Kershaw, the back end of back-to-back homers with Anthony Rendon that tied Game 5 of the NL Division Series after the Dodgers led that game, 3-1.

“That’s not even the swing I remember the best,” Rizzo said. “The swing I remember best came in the Wild Card Game, when he was up against a lefty nobody hits [Josh Hader], and hit an absolute laser that ended up tying the game when their right fielder misplayed it and we scored three. But the kid was as relaxed in that moment as he was the whole month. And he showed me the same thing we’d seen from him when he was 16 years old, before I gave him more money [$1.5 million] than I’d ever given somebody that young in my life: The best strike zone discipline I’ve seen in a young ballplayer since Frank Thomas.”

Rizzo has now seen Bryce Harper come to the big leagues as a teenager, and he’s seen Soto do the same. Harper has more power, at least for now. Soto is a better hitter and a better all-around player. And the very best part with the young man from Santo Domingo?

No. 22 of the Washington Nationals does not turn 22 until the next baseball October.

It wasn’t supposed to be Soto’s time for the big leagues, at least not yet, when the Nationals called him up in 2018. But Howie Kendrick suffered an Achilles injury and Victor Robles, who was supposed to be the next kid in the chute for the Nationals at that time, was out for a few months with an elbow injury.

Rizzo made a call to Double-A Harrisburg, where Soto was playing at the time.

“Get Soto heading this way,” Rizzo said.

At that point, Soto had played exactly eight games for Harrisburg, which meant eight games above A ball in his life. The Nationals had started him in center field, then moved him to right. He went to left field in the big leagues and into the middle of the Nationals’ order, on a team that Rizzo thought might have enough to win it all a year before it actually did. And Soto did what he has done since leaving the Dominican: Walked into the room and acted as if he belonged.

Soto played 116 games the rest of the way and hit 22 home runs, including one at Yankee Stadium in front of a huge crowd that might just be landing now. He knocked in 70 runs and had an OPS of .923 and an on-base percentage of .406. His batting average was .292. Last year, across a full season, Soto hit .282, with 34 homers, 110 RBIs, an on-base percentage of .401 and an OPS of .949. At this point in his career, at his age, you wouldn’t trade him for anybody.

“His ceiling,” Rizzo said on Thursday morning, “is limitless.”

Rizzo smiled then. Big smile.

“After his rookie season, we told him that the one thing we wanted him to improve on was his defense,” he said. “So what does he do? He comes back and makes himself into a good enough outfielder that he’s one of the three finalists for the Gold Glove.

“Somehow he’s humble and cocky at the same time. Nothing has really changed since we called him up. He’s completely relaxed at the plate. He hits in the middle of the order. He plays every day. He hits righties and he hits lefties. And he plays the hell out of a position now that he hadn’t really ever played before he got here.”

We talk all the time about all the amazing young talent in the game. Soto’s the youngest one of all of them. Nobody's more talented. His boss is right. Sky’s the limit for No. 22 of the Nationals. Still just 21.