December 11, 2018

Mambo Soto! A Vision of Robles and Soto Playing DC Baseball With a Salsa Beat?

June 14, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Juan Soto’s two home runs at Yankee Stadium last night not only cast a spell over the Bronx crowd, but over the future for the Washington Nationals. The young slugger is intriguing enough in his own right. He IS Bryce Harper as a 19-year old. The comparisons can be made now as the young Dominican plays opposite Harper and somehow continues to amaze fans, team mates and the media with his ability.

Soto is exciting enough, but when you factor in another Dominican outfielder, Victor Robles, the future for DC baseball is not only compelling, but very different.  What changes are we talking about? Is that a bold new Latin vibe I hear in the Washington clubhouse?

The impact of Soto and Robles can perhaps be best understood by watching a video that may have as much to unlock the meaning of the Soto and Robles in DC as anything. The night that Soto hit his first Major League home run, Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post, shared this video of youngsters at the Washington Nationals Dominican Baseball Academy celebrating the feat of their comrade in arms. There has been much written about the ethos of baseball in the Caribbean and especially in the Dominican Republic, which is the poorest Latin country to provide talent for Major League teams. The sweat shop mentality has been much explored and with good cause.

But it remains one of the most important pipelines for MLB talent. Robles and Soto are the first truly important Latin talents developed by the Washington Nationals and with their names writ large across under the masthead, there could be a new day dawning, one that harkens back to one that only older DC fans remember.

First, let’s return to the comparison of Soto and Harper. They are both playing on the same field now and the contrasts are instructive. Harper is hitting .229 with 19 home runs. He no longer can make those clothes lines throws from right field, preferring to side arm the ball to the infield with almost as much force, but not quite the drama. Harper is aging into the player that Jim Callis once informed me he might become in the run up to the 2010 draft. Callis opined that Harper would not always be the young speedster we saw that summer, but whose body type might swell into something more like Adam Dunn with time.

That prognostication has not become a reality quite yet, but one cannot dismiss the concern any longer. The .330 batting average that helped propel Harper to the 2015 MVP came again last season when he hit .319, but his current career average of .281 looks more like the neighborhood where he will likely settle over time. Harper will always be a better and more complete player than Adam Dunn, but the tendency for Harper to bulk up and concentrate on his power may grow and come to dominate as he ages.

Soto looks quite different. He is lean, though they say he has put on core muscle noticeably. And he is hungry. Maybe that goes away over the years as well, but he starts with a different body than Harper’s and a different power stroke. As scouting reports document, Soto has a swing that is more conducive to line drive power. He may change his swing path over time, but if he does, he risks following Harpers’ lead where the all-or-nothing approach has affected his overall demeanor at the plate and his contact rates. If the Nationals continue with their Kevin Long liaison, they may want to keep him away from Soto.  With his current approach, the 19-year old Soto has 19 long balls in 214 at bats in both the majors and minors this year. Harper had 23 home runs in his age-19 year for over 600 at bats in the majors and minors. Think about those numbers for a moment.

Adjusting Soto’s swing should be a felony offense for Kevin Long or anyone else. The Dodgers would only let Walter Alston talk to Frank Howard about his hitting in 1961. GM Mike Rizzo may want to institute a similar policy for Soto, Alston’s death in 1984 notwithstanding.

Given the departure of Harper at the end of the 2018 season, which is made all the more certain by Soto’s development, what does Juan provide alongside Victor Robles who will likely patrol center field for the Nationals in 2019? The comparable that springs to mind is Sterling Marte and Andrew McCutcheon, in their heyday with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Marte has a similar power/speed profile as Robles and Soto more of the power potential of Cutch. There are two notable differences. Soto and Robles will be better defenders and Soto will have more power than McCutcheon and hopefully more staying power. But that is what Nationals fans may be looking at in 2019: something better than Marte and McCutcheon.

There is a speculative point for which I have no basis in fact, but will venture forth to make regardless. Harper has had one foot out the door since he broke in with Washington in 2011. The Dominican Baseball Academy that the Nationals have built from is no more well-established than Washington baseball generally, but it may be generating players with more organizational loyalty than Bryce Harper has had. Do players who grow up in an organization from their signing as a teen have more loyalty to those roots than young prospects from the mainland who sign later and often for more money? We shall see.

Since 2013, when the Gulf Coast Nationals won their league with an impressive 49 wins against only 9 losses, the franchise has made huge strides in creating a beach head where young Latin players get a taste of what their careers may look like. That 2013 GCL team included current Nationals Major Leaguers like Wilmer Difo and pitchers Wander Suero and Jefry Rodriguez. All three look like they could make significant contributions in the coming years. There are others in the pipeline. Kelvin Gutierrez, Telemito Augustin, Yasel Antuna and Luis Garcia are just a handful of the Dominicans who may well make their way to Nationals Park in coming years.

Regardless who makes it and who does not, one thing is certain. The 2019 Washington Nationals will have a Latin presence that exceeds anything the city has seen since Connie Marrero, Camilo Pasqual and Pedro Ramos were mound regulars for the Senators in the mid-1950’s. It is a positive development and one the city should celebrate loudly. Next year Juan Soto and Victor Robles will be marquee names for the Washington Nationals. Will their faces become as ubiquitous as Bryce Harper’s? Probably not, but they are going to play great baseball, probably at least as well as Harper, even in his best years.

When all the dust settles from Harper’s departure, the team that takes the field in April of 2019 will have just as much talent and likely will be hungrier to prove itself. Regulars like Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Matt Adams–who hopefully will return in 2019, Adam Eaton, Zimmerman and Michael A. Taylor provide a solid core that can score runs for what should continue to be one of the best pitching staffs in either league. The team needs a catcher and they should examine the many Latin receivers like Wilson Ramos and Martin Maldanado who could fit nicely on a team that has more of a salsa beat. Someone said the magic word!! Everybody!! Everybody up and on their feet!!

Yes, maybe it is time for those dance lessons we have been putting off for the last fifty years. Merenque, Bachata, Salsa!! Everyone needs to get on their feet for the new look Nationals. You can almost hear the congas, the bata drums and the claves beating as the noise builds in the bleachers. Soto has hit another one!! Everybody on your feet!! Everybody dances and the whole stadium is moving and swaying like back at RFK in 2005. The fans are dancing crazy stuff in every aisle. What a place, what a team!! Has baseball ever been this much fun before?? Mambo Soto! Mambo Soto! Mambo! Soto!

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