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Nationals international scout tells origin story of superstar Juan Soto

Nationals international scout tells origin story of superstar Juan Soto

Nationals vice president of international scouting Johnny DiPuglia gets some variation of the same question all the time these days: where did you find this guy?

'This guy' would be Juan Soto, the 20-year-old phenom currently lighting it up on Major League Baseball's biggest stage. Less than 17 months removed from his big league debut, Soto has been the star of the postseason for Washington so far. He had the go-ahead RBI knock against the Brewers in the NL Wild Card game and then two homers in the NLDS against the Dodgers.

"It's like watching your eight-year-old son win the Little League World Series," DiPuglia told NBC Sports Washington.

Coming from the Dominican Republic, Soto wasn't drafted by the Nationals, he was signed as an international free agent. And because his rise was so swift, to most people he came out of nowhere. Soto essentially went from obscurity to MLB stardom in a span of a year-and-a-half.

DiPuglia's job is to project the future and determine which players have major league DNA and which ones do not. He saw MLB potential in Soto the first time he scouted him at an international tournament in Fort Lauderdale, FL, back when Soto was 15.

The Nationals have a time-tested system of scouting and cross-checking. DiPuglia cut his teeth as a scout with the St. Louis Cardinals and then through the front office in Boston where he and the Red Sox won the 2004 and 2007 World Series titles.

He believes in what he sees with his own eyes. Soto was on his radar and he had to see for himself.

So, he made the drive over to Ft. Lauderdale from his home in the Miami area and gave Soto a look.

"We don't complicate ourselves with all this anayltic stuff that's out now," DiPuglia said. "We go out in the field, we beat the bushes and we watch games. "

DiPuglia saw that Soto had a big league skillset, but he can't say he knew he would be this good, this quickly. That realization came over the next few years, when his peers in the scouting community approached him in envy.

"[I knew] when I started hearing comments from scouts in other organizations and from player development people in our organization," DiPuglia said.

"[Nationals field coordinator] Tommy Shields is a guy that I talk to quite a bit. He loved the kid. He kept telling me 'this kid is gonna be special.' I had an inkling that he was, but you keep hearing it from [people]."

What stood out to DiPuglia in the coming years, and what raised his expectations for what he would become, was how quickly Soto displayed improvement. Each time he saw him at the Single- and Double-A levels, Soto had taken steps in a matter of months that require years for most players.

"I kept seeing the maturation process speed up. This kid was just unbelievable at the plate," DiPuglia said.

Even DiPuglia couldn't have predicted Soto would be here now, dominating big league pitchers only five years after he first saw him play. He's only 20, yet he already has two big league seasons with a .900-plus OPS under his belt. In 2019, he hit .282/.401/.548 with 34 homers, 110 RBI, 108 walks and 110 runs. 

That's just not what 20-year-olds usually do.

"He's a different animal. I always say he's your dog that plays checkers. How many dogs do you see that play checkers? He's that kind of player," DiPuglia said.

Soto is emblematic of the Nationals' renaissance in international scouting. The organization had to start over in Latin America after a controversy involving former front office executives drew the FBI's attention in 2009.

It took years for the Nats to begin finding players in Latin America like Soto, the type of scouting discoveries that can alter a franchise. Victor Robles is another feather in their cap, as he has emerged already as one of the best defensive outfielders in the game at only 22 years old.

Soto and Robles have changed the tenor of the Nationals' clubhouse by adding youth and a dose of the Latin game. DiPuglia believes the team's addition of veteran Latin players has helped them flourish.

"I think having a good Latin leadership in the clubhouse [has helped]. [Nats GM] Mike [Rizzo] bringing in Gerardo Parra this year and [Asdrubal] Cabrera; that gave him the added information to take it to the next level. These guys really help him in different situations and what's going to happen," DiPuglia explained.

"I go into the Nationals clubhouse and I'm hearing merengue playing and salsa playing and then after the game, seeing all these guys dancing. I'm seeing [Stephen] Strasburg dancing salsa, [Max] Scherzer dancing merengue. It's unbelievable... before, when you would go in there and speak Spanish, people would look at you like a UFO. Now, you have to know some words of Spanish just to fit in. I think it's wonderful."

Soto has already helped the Nationals go further in the playoffs than any team in club history. They have advanced deeper in the MLB postseason than any D.C. baseball team since 1933.

Not bad for a 20-year-old.

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Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

While Nationals fans are understandably disappointed Anthony Rendon is no longer a member of the Nationals, they can rest easy knowing he didn't see himself signing the the NL rival Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers never made an offer to Rendon, per The Athletic, after "sensing that he didn’t want to play in Los Angeles." He instead signed with the Los Angeles Angels, inking a seven-year, $245 million deal to play for the California team that receives considerably less media attention than its in-state rival.

Now entrenched in the AL on the other side of the country, Rendon won't face the Nationals very often nor will his team's play have any effect on Washington's playoff chances from year to year. It was a best-case scenario for fans after it became likely he wouldn't be returning to Washington.

After being spurned by Rendon and losing out on top free-agent pitchers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, the Dodgers are still looking to make their first big move of the offseason.

There's still plenty of time for them to make a move, but Los Angeles can expect little sympathy from Nationals fans that Rendon won't be suiting up in Dodger blue for the next seven years.

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Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Here’s the list of players on the Nationals’ active roster who could play third base: Wilmer Difo, Jake Noll, Adrián Sánchez, Howie Kendrick, Carter Kieboom. Career major-league starts at the position: Difo, 29; Noll, one; Sánchez, nine; Kendrick, 25; Kieboom, zero. 

Such is the state of third base for the defending World Series champions. Not good. 

Which makes Josh Donaldson’s agent smile and any semi-skilled third baseman with a pulse a possible target. Possible trades? Count the Nationals in. On most. Not on Nolan Arenado. That’s a non-starter because Washington is not going to send assets (prospects) for a contract it was unwilling to give Anthony Rendon in the first place. Zero chance. Zilch.

However, Kris Bryant is more intriguing depending on the years and ask -- as always with trades. Beyond him and Kyle Seager, is there another third baseman the Nationals could pursue in a trade? The question takes on weight because of the aforementioned toothless list of in-house candidates and shallow free-agent talent pool beyond Donaldson.

Any trade consideration needs to begin with an understanding of the parameters Washington is working from. Last season, Rendon’s one-year deal to avoid arbitration earned him $18.8 million. When Washington looks at the cost for its next third baseman, the number will be similar to last season’s cost for Rendon. A bump in the competitive balance tax threshold, plus savings at first base and catcher, provide the Nationals wiggle room for increases in spots. So, $18-25 million annually for a third baseman is in play.

Second, the Nationals’ farm system needs to be taken into account. Their 2018 first-round pick, Mason Denaburg, had shoulder problems last year. Mike Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings that Denaburg is healthy and progressing. But, the early shoulder irritation for a high school pitcher who also had problems his senior year with biceps tendinitis provides his stock pause. He’s a would-be trade chip. So is Kieboom.

But, what is Kieboom’s value? What damage did it receive during his rocky, and brief, appearance in the majors last season? Did his potent hitting in the Pacific Coast League after being sent back mitigate his big-league struggles? 

Beyond Kieboom, the farm system’s next tier is manned by Luis Garcia, 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge, Wil Crowe and Tim Cate, among others. Only Garcia is part of MLB.com’s top-100 prospects list (which is more of a guide than an industry standard).

So, when Bryant or Seager -- or anyone not named Arenado -- are mentioned, know where the Nationals are coming from. If they are positioned to take on money, they don’t want to use assets to do it (this is the Donaldson Scenario). If they can save money, find a solid player and retain the few high-end assets, then a trade could be in play (this would be the Seager Scenario, if Seattle pays some of the contract). 

The Bryant Scenario is the most appealing and challenging. He’s the best player of the group. However, acquiring him would be high-cost and short-term. Bryant has two years remaining before he can become a free agent -- with an outside shot at becoming a free agent after next season because of a grievance he filed against the Cubs for service-time manipulation. Obtaining him would likely focus on multiple pitching prospects.

There is no Arenado Scenario. Just a reminder.

Piled together, Washington is in a tough spot. What it has is not enough. What it needs will be costly.

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