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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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Juan Soto hints at returning to Nationals summer training on Instagram

Juan Soto hints at returning to Nationals summer training on Instagram

Ever since summer training started for the Nationals, one of the main questions surrounding the team revolved around their absent superstar left fielder. 

Along with Howie Kendrick and Victor Robles, Juan Soto has yet to report to summer training ahead of a 60-game sprint that will act as Washington's first World Series title defense. The 21-year-old went into isolation on July 7 after coming in contact with a teammate who tested positive for coronavirus. The team revealed two unnamed players tested positive on July 5.

Now, it appears Soto's return is approaching, as he hinted Wednesday night on Instagram that he's "coming tomorrow."

Soto's return will surely be a welcomed sight by his teammates. With Anthony Rendon gone via free agency, Soto is now the lineup's centerpiece. He'll need to produce at the level he did last year, if not better, to give the Nats' stellar pitching staff the run support they need. 

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In 2019, Soto posted a .282/.401/.548 slash line with 34 home runs, 110 RBI and 32 doubles. He came in ninth in the MVP vote and on top of it all, delivered a number of clutch hits in the postseason to help deliver his team a championship. 

Now that he's back, let's hope he can no further complications arise and he can remain with the team all season long, no matter how short it may be. 

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Nationals Scene and Heard: Crowd noise makes its way into the stadium

Nationals Scene and Heard: Crowd noise makes its way into the stadium

WASHINGTON -- Suddenly on Wednesday, the speakers were alive in Nationals Park.

Out came the voice of public address announcer Jerome Hruska, who was in the stadium. The scoreboard lit up. The light boards around the park were active. By 8 p.m., the stadium lights were on, a benign breeze floated through the park and the intrasquad game was scoreless in the bottom of the sixth inning.

Starlin Castro singled up the middle off James Borque to excite the “crowd.” A cheer came through the speakers when the ball landed in center field. There were also cheers when a player struck out. Such is the nature of intrasquad play.

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So, the park went from echoing silence for almost two weeks to jazzed up three days before the exhibition opener. It was an improvement.

“If anything, it gets you zoned in a little more,” Erick Fedde said. “Crowd noise is something I feel like most are pretty good at zoning out. I didn’t really think about it to be honest. But it was nice to kind of feel like we had a little bit better atmosphere today.”

Major League Baseball went a similar route to the Premier League in order to combat empty stadiums. Sky Sports worked with EA Sports’ FIFA division to create simulated chants and crowd noises designed for specific teams. Here, MLB drew from audio created for the video game MLB The Show.

The video board usage was a distinct improvement from prior days when it only carried a doomsday-looking clock since workouts began July 3. Wednesday, it was filled with normal graphics -- including new ones mentioning who won the 2019 World Series -- throughout the intrasquad game.

“They noticed it,” Davey Martinez said of the players. “With not having like a regular crowd, obviously the echo out in the field, it’s different. We had to click it down a little bit to get it where we thought it was more ‘real’. But they liked it. They liked the noise. They like the music -- they like to dance -- so it was good. We got a great reaction from them, liked it, we’re going to incorporate it this season. We’re going to work out the bugs. It’s definitely a lot better to hear that than listen [to] yourself screaming or hear everyone talking.”

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It’s a work in progress. Wednesday night, Wilmer Difo popped up behind home plate into the stands and a large cheer went up. It was the kind of noise even the most overzealous fan base would not produce.

The noise as a whole was turned down in the final innings, per the players’ request. Martinez thought they found the proper spot for the volume by the end of the night.

“I want to make this last week or so as close as we can to real games,” Martinez said.

-- Stephen Strasburg started for one side. He struck out four consecutive batters after Trea Turner doubled to start the intrasquad game. Not surprisingly, Martinez said he thought Strasburg looked good. He’s in line to face James Paxton in the second game of the season when the New York Yankees come to Nationals Park.

-- Starlin Castro has been piling up at-bats and swings since joining camp July 9. He started late, so he is trying to catch up. He’s also crucial -- remaining likely to hit third during the season -- so the Nationals want to be sure he’s not doing too much.

“It’s a fine line,” Martinez said. “He’s been taking a lot of swings in the cage. Hitting, hitting off the velo machine. I’m not overly concerned with Starlin. He’s just a pure hitter. He’s a good hitter. ...he’ll be fine.”

-- Carter Kieboom made a nice sliding defensive play to his left and was able to get up and throw to first for the out. He also turned a 5-3 double play when fielding a grounder, hearing yells to step on the bag, slightly changing direction to find it, then throwing to first. His education at third base is happening in real-time.

-- Martinez positively mentioned Jake Irvin throwing 95-97 mph on Wednesday when he pitched the bottom of the fifth inning. Irvin, 23, pitched for Single-A Hagerstown last season.

“It’s so funny to watch these young kids come up,” Martinez said. “He walked off the mound and had those big ‘ol eyeballs sticking out. I can remember those days when I was a kid coming out and playing those games.”

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