Nationals

Martinez ‘very confident’ in Soto’s ability to play right field

Nationals

The Nationals plan to make Juan Soto their everyday right fielder for the 2021 season, switching him over from left to make room for free agent signing Kyle Schwarber.

Soto, 22, played the entirety of his first two seasons at the major-league level in left field before manager Davey Martinez tested him out in right for the final six games of 2020. The Nationals gave him a chance to play the more difficult corner outfield position in order to be more flexible when signing a free agent outfielder to replace Adam Eaton, whose team option was declined in October.

That strategy proved handy when Washington agreed to a one-year, $10 million deal with Schwarber, a two-time 30-homer slugger whose defensive limitations have been well documented. Alongside first baseman Josh Bell, the former catcher is expected to give the Nationals’ lineup a power element that it lacked last season. On defense, Washington will lean on Soto and Victor Robles to stabilize its outfield after it accrued -20 Defensive Runs Saved in 2020, fewest in the National League.

On Sunday, Martinez said on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXMSoto jumped at the opportunity to move across the outfield.

“When I talked to him last year after Adam Eaton got hurt, I called him in my office and said, ‘Hey, how would you like to play some right field?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I love it. Let’s do it.’ So put him over there and he’s looked very comfortable,” Martinez said. “He talked to me at the end of the year about possibly staying over there. He felt really good about it and I said, ‘Look, I’m all for it.’ We’ll keep working at it and I think he’s going to be a very good right fielder. As you know, he worked really hard to be a very good left fielder so I’m very confident that he’ll make the transition and do well there.”

 

As polished a hitter as Soto has been since he first broke into the majors, his defense has been a work in progress. He struggled as a rookie with -6 DRS while Statcast graded him out as a poor route runner whose initial burst of speed from his original position saved him from missing catchable balls. Soto then took a step forward in 2019 and even finished as a Gold Glove finalist, though his sheer volume of innings in left field may have played a role in that nomination.

Soto’s route running improved last season despite taking a step back with -8 DRS in left. He avoided making an error during the pandemic-shortened campaign and will look to show his Gold Glove finalist status in 2019 was no fluke with a full season expected in 2021.

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In general, Soto plays very deep in the outfield. Among all qualified left fielders last season, he had the 10th-largest average outfield depth at 300 feet. Soto also tends to hug the third-base line, a luxury afforded to him by the presence of Robles in center. While the conservative approach should help him limit mistakes in his new position, it's a spot he at least has some familiarity with going into the year.

“In the short time that he was in the minor leagues that’s where he played, right field,” Martinez said. “We’ve had conversations throughout his short career about moving. It’s funny because I always tell him during batting practice to just go out there and shag balls from center field and work on your jumps at center field. More balls are hit up the middle of the field during batting practice and work on your footwork and learn how to play all three positions. And he’s very good at doing that.”