WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Juan Soto said he had never actually been inside the Nationals' home clubhouse at the FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, not before he arrived Monday morning for his first big league camp.
It was a brief reminder of just how meteoric Soto's rise to D.C. had been. A year ago, Soto was in Minor League camp, a player Nationals evaluators raved about as perhaps the best pure hitter in the organization, but one who's impact in Washington seemed in the distant future. He did play in five Grapefruit League games, but at 19 years old, he was destined to begin the season at Class A.
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On Monday, Soto arrived as one of the most important players for a Nationals team with postseason aspirations. He walked into the clubhouse and went around to embrace and hug teammates he had not seen all winter and introduce himself to players he did not know, including a welcome to left-hander Patrick Corbin. The Soto who got called up last summer was quiet and reserved, but he appears to be growing more comfortable within the Nationals' clubhouse.
And after finishing in second place in the voting for the National League Rookie of the Year Award, Soto has established himself as the starting left fielder and middle of the order hitter for Washington, serving in some ways as a replacement for Bryce Harper -- if he does not re-sign with the Nationals, which appears increasingly unlikely. It's quite a bit of pressure to put on a 20-year-old entering his second Major League season, but it's something the Nationals believe he can handle.
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"The biggest thing is, not to try to do more," manager Dave Martinez said. "Just go out there. He's really good at taking his walks and just playing the game. I want him to continue having fun and just play the game. I told him: 'Don't put any numbers in your head. Just go out there and have fun like you did last year. Just play the game.'"
The numbers from Soto's rookie season are remarkable enough to review once again.
He batted .292/.406/.517 with a 146 wRC+, 22 home runs and 3.7 Wins Above Replacement in 116 games. He finished tied with Harper for the second-most home runs by a teenager in MLB history, trailing only Tony Conigliaro. Soto had more walks (79) and generated the highest on-base percentage and OPS for a teenager in history. During MLB's Japan All-Star Series in November, he went 7-for-20 with two doubles, two homers and five RBIs, crushing a ball off the Tokyo Dome he called one of the hardest he's ever hit.
Now the question remains: What does Soto have in store for an encore?
Steamer projects Soto as a 4.3 WAR player with 27 home runs and 142 wRC+ in 2019. Pitchers are likely to have a better game plan to attack Soto at the plate, but few players have shown the ability to make adjustments on the fly as well as he has, especially at such a young age with so little experience. It's one of the main reasons the Nationals do not fear a "sophomore slump" for Soto, who denied feeling any added pressure this season.
"I just feel the same," he said. "Now I feel a little bit better. People know you. You know you're working at getting better and better."
One area Soto has marked for improvement is his defense in left field, a position he had not played before being promoted to the Majors last May. Although the Nats say he improved defensively through the course of the season, he still finished with minus-5 Defensive Runs Saved. Martinez wants Soto to work on getting behind the ball when it's hit in the air, improve his angles running toward the ball and improve his throwing arm.
"The kid worked diligently last year in the outfield," Martinez said. "And he wants to get better. So he knows that coming in."
For a glimpse at just how highly the Nationals view Soto, consider this high praise from veteran teammate Howie Kendrick, who had a locker located near Soto at the home clubhouse in D.C.:
"He does put in the work every day I see him in the cages," Kendrick said. "He's happy, loves the game. He goes 0-for-4, he's 'no big deal' and right back at it. I played with another guy that was just like that and his name was Mike Trout.
"The guy came in and would play the game, wanted to win every day and just had a great attitude every single day. And I see a lot of those same similarities in Juan coming in every day, playing the game, plays it at a high level. Not quite as speedy as Mike Trout, but he does a lot of similar things that Mike does."