Since 1990 (in which year, Rich Garces represented the season’s only teenage debutante), only 14 hitters have debuted in the big leagues shy of age 20. With his appearance pinch-hit appearance on Sunday for the Nationals, Juan Soto just did it less minor-league time than nearly all of them. Soto’s 2017 season was buried under injuries (a fractured ankle, a broken hamate bone that required surgery, a hamstring issue), which limited him to just 32 games. When he stepped into the batter’s box this weekend, he did so having played just 122 minor-league games before his debut, the fewest for a teenage hitter since Alex Rodriguez debuted as an 18-year-old in 1994 after just 114 games.
|Year||Player||Position||Team||Debut Age (Y.D)|
|2004||Melvin Upton Jr.||SS||TB||19.347|
Edgar Renteria was pushed to the Midwest League as a 16-year-old and, by the time he was in the majors, had three times as many games under his belt than Soto. Justin Upton was drafted out of high school in 2005 and held out until January. (I guess there’s one good thing about the new CBA.) Then he tore through the minors and debuted in August of 2007 after seeing action in about 200 games. Trout signed quickly after he was drafted and played in the AZL that summer, then split his first full pro season at Low- and High-A, after which he was already at 175 games, and he needed 75 more and a Peter Bourjos injury the following year to debut.
Bryce Harper comes close if you don’t count his 34 Fall League games combined in 2010 (when he was 17) and 2011, as he got there in 130 regular-season minor-league games.
Soto’s ascent and its evaluation through this specific lens is partly a product of circumstance — both in Washington’s injuries this season and Soto’s last year — but impressive nonetheless, and he is remarkably talented. I saw Soto last week, in what would be his last Carolina League series, on the front end of what was mostly an amateur scouting trip. Here’s how I have the tools evaluated after that viewing:
|Hit||Raw Power||Game Power||Run||Fielding||Throw|
The max-effort nature of some of Soto’s swings, which are the most violent and freakishly rotational I’ve seen since Oscar Taveras when Soto really cuts loose, cause him to take some embarrassing hacks over offspeed stuff beneath the zone. His pitch recognition is good enough to offset this, and Soto has had little trouble laying off these types of pitches this year. But now big leaguers are going to be setting up and throwing those dying changeups and ankle-biting curveballs. The physical tools to succeed at the big-league level are already here, but if Soto fails initially I’d guess it’s because he takes time adjusting to MLB-quality chase pitches. He’s running better than last year, having distanced himself even further from surgery, but still hasn’t totally grown into his body. He looks uncoordinated at times in the outfield and on the bases.
With our overall top-100 list (which will soon just be a list of every 50 FV or better prospect in baseball) poised for an update after the minor-league season’s first quarter — mostly to reflect injuries and graduations — Soto has climbed more than any other prospect in baseball. We had a 50 FV on him entering the year, with a combination of injuries and relative inexperience pulling down on what would have been a higher grade based on the talent alone.
Now that it’s fair to assume Soto would be succeeding at Double-A, at age 19, with these tools, we need to reassess his standing pretty dramatically. Our early discussions have him somewhere in the No. 7 to 18 overall range, a span bookended by Bo Bichette (who has similar offensive ability and a better defensive home) and Luis Robert (who also has similar ability and a better defensive home, but who is 20, injured, and set to go to High-A after tuning up in extended spring training).
To close, consider what Soto would be doing if he were a collegiate player. Arizona State freshman 1B Spencer Torkelson, who’s a little younger than Soto but has 20 pounds on him, is hitting .321/.441/.758 with 24 home runs, shattering Barry Bonds’ freshman home-run record at ASU. Here’s how Torkelson (who has a more circular hand path than he did in high school, helping him lift the ball) grades out compared to Soto based on my looks at Tork here in Tempe.
Bear in mind that Torkelson’s present hit tool grade is basically code for “Advanced College Bat” while Soto’s is what I think it will actually be in the big leagues right now since, you know, he’s there.
I’d argue this comparison is more apples to apples than trying to line up Soto against someone like Alex Reyes on a prospect list. Grouping, then preffing out, prospects based on age and then folding them into one another to create a master list might be the best way to do this from scratch. The differences in Soto’s tool grades and expected defensive value compared to Torkelson’s are relevant but not extreme. Where Soto separates himself from the best college freshman hitter and most other 19-year-olds on the planet, is how quickly he’s gotten to the bigs. He’s a prodigy with plus-plus bat speed. Torkelson will be drafted as a right-right first baseman in two years. If he hits like Peter Alonso has for two years after that, we’ll probably have a 50 FV on him at that point. He’s four years away from being on a running top-100 list off of which Soto might graduate in the next several weeks.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.