Luis García headed for third base over the weekend and the out-of-town announcers made what’s become a common mistake.
“Juan Soto heads into third base without a throw.”
García looks like Soto: large for his age, left-handed at the plate, happy. He also wants to be like Soto. García said so at spring training in 2019.
“I want to be the next Juan Soto,” he said with a smile.
He didn’t mean via results. García was more talking about coming to the major leagues and never leaving. He knew he was not going to be part of the team in 2019. His season would be spent with Double-A Harrisburg instead. Though, he also knew he was creeping toward a shot if several things fell into place, which is precisely what happened this season. Starlin Castro dove and broke his wrist. The Nationals had an open 40-man roster spot because of earlier injuries and personnel decisions. They ended up with an active 28-man roster spot because Sean Doolittle was injured/ineffective. Enter García.
“I'm so happy to be here,” he said this week.
The Nationals thought García’s fielding was close to major-league ready. His bat was not. García’s .617 OPS and four home runs in 553 plate appearances last season showed a step back from the prior season, not a step forward. The organization hoped his work for the Senators later in the season -- a .758 OPS in August -- was more of what García was than the mediocre months that preceded the end of the year. He’s getting a chance now to start defining which of those hitters he is.
He’s followed Soto since the two met years ago. Since then, García watched Soto’s rise with the same saucer eyes belonging to those back at the team’s baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. Now, it’s García who is 20 years old (by just three months) in the major leagues trying to first stick, then excel.
“I talk to him all the time about creating his own identity and just him being him,” Davey Martinez said. “Don't try to do too much. Hey, you're a gap-to-gap hitter. You're going to run into a baseball and you'll hit one out, but just forget about it and stay to what you do best, and that's going from left-center to right-center, and playing good defense."
García is the first player born in the 2000s to hit a home run in the major leagues. Martinez immediately congratulated him and advised him not to let it go to his head. He’s off to a fast start in a tremendously small sample size: .977 OPS in 17 at-bats. Though, García has struck out five times and walked once.
Other underlying numbers show the distinct difference at the plate between him and Soto -- plus a likely reversal to come in his offense. García’s O-swing percentage (the percentage of pitches he swings at that are outside the strikes zone) is 34 percent. That’s almost double Soto’s distinctly-low 18.6 percent. There is also a power gap in addition to the discipline gulf.
But, one thing they have in common at the plate is buckling down when the count has two strikes. García asked Soto in 2017 what he looks for in a two-strike count. The answer was a fastball away, so that’s what García looks for now, too. He also spreads out and settles in when the count reaches two strikes. Soto does the same, plus chokes up on his bat. It’s not a coincidence.
“If you looked away and looked real quick, you would think it was Juan Soto hitting,” Martinez said.
García’s primary goal has one road block. Castro signed a two-year deal and has wrist surgery pending. His return this season is doubtful, though he would be the presumptive second baseman next season when healthy.
However, there is no other middle infielder prospect in the organization on par with García. The Nationals would be happy to save even a modest payroll hit next year by keeping García on the roster as a utility player -- assuming he continues to show he is capable -- and spending their money on a chase of J.T. Realmuto, more bullpen help or another starter to replace Aníbal Sánchez, who has a $12 million club option on his contract for next season.
In short, García appears set to stay in the major leagues. How much he ultimately ends up being like Soto is in question, but it won’t be for lack of trying.