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What does Juan Soto think of his first season with the Nationals? Well, he was impressed

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What does Juan Soto think of his first season with the Nationals? Well, he was impressed

An informational table titled “Prospects Report” hangs at the top of Juan Soto’s Fangraphs page. Two numbers on the far right stand out: The first is “50”, his future value rating, which means he projects as an average major-league player. The second is “2020” which is listed as his “ETA” into the major leagues. Those 2018 numbers are severely outdated a year later.

Soto roared to the major leagues from Single A last season to finish second in National League Rookie of the Year voting as a 19-year-old. He then joined an MLB All-Star team to play in Japan before finally returning home to take a break.

Soto’s 2018 started in front of 3,424 fans at State Mutual Stadium in Rome, Georgia, where he homered on the second pitch of his first at-bat. It ended Nov. 14 with him going 3-for-4 in the Nagoya Dome, home to the Chunichi Dragons in the Aichi Prefecture. He made 698 plate appearances during his run from northwest Georgia to central Japan. 

“Yeah I got to rest now,” Soto said recently. “The season, no. Now it's my time to rest.”

While he finds some respite, his team, and the league, wonders what’s next. The Nationals know they have an Opening Day left fielder who could be one of the league’s best hitters. They learned his patience and power translated from minor-league outposts to MLB’s biggest parks. They also saw the league quickly try to pin down this unexpected meteor. Pitchers threw Soto a fastball just 47.5 percent of the time last season. It’s the same treatment Bryce Harper received as a rookie. 

“What we did learn from Juan Soto is what? He smashes fastballs,” Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long said. “So, I’m watching and I see a game in Japan. Juan Soto, there’s a breaking ball, (makes a loud noise). First thing he says, ‘Did you see that curveball I hit?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I saw it.’ He says, ‘I know what they’re going to try to do to me now. They’re going to try to throw me a lot of off-speed.’ He’ll learn. He’s a quick-learner. He gets it."

“But that’s one part of the game he knows we’re going to have to address because they’re going to throw him a lot more off-speed stuff. And he’s going to be just fine. His mechanics are sound and his approach is sound enough, he’s going to be able to do that.”

Sound, solid, just fine are all applicable to Soto’s first season. An increase in exposure didn’t turn him into an introvert. Rather, it spurred him to sign more autographs, understand the same questions came with a new round of reporters as opponents changed, and that doing “Juan Soto things” increasingly became a phenomenon.

Soto’s grasp on his swirling life stood out as much as his plate work. His adjustments were swift in both arenas. He spent the entire season doing interviews in English. Every national broadcast brought another round of sitdowns in the dugout or under a set of lights. Much of it became a trial run for what will happen in 2019, particularly if he duplicates his season and Harper does not return. He’s known now, an idea that pleases him.

"Yeah, why not?” Soto said. “I like that. I like to be ... how they talk about me and it's positive. I like all this stuff. I don't think like that, I just keep being me and keep playing baseball."

It’s not just the United States. Returning to the Dominican Republic this offseason was another jolt. 

"It's different now because everybody knows you,” Soto said. “Every place you go everybody know you. It feels pretty good, because the people, every park they see me they are very proud of me."

The year wasn’t perfect. Soto’s OPS dipped to .800 in August. More than reasonable by typical rookie or 19-year-old standards, and acceptable by regular major league measure, but a modest slump for him. The upside of the downturn was it inspired one of the quotes of the year after Soto’s offense picked up in early September and he informed reporters he just kept doing “Juan Soto things” to come out of his relative August malaise.

His defense needed work. Soto arrived with a routine honed by outfield/baserunning coordinator Gary Thurman during Soto’s brief stay in the minor leagues. From there, the Nationals focused on Soto’s first step and park-by-park tutorials before batting practice. Soto ventured onto the field around 2 p.m. at the start of each new series to learn the wall, what playing straight up in that park meant, how the opposition’s personnel performed and how hitter tendencies determined his in-game positioning. Soto was never afforded other times to learn, so the season became perpetual on-the-job training. 

“Once he starts playing, you get opportunities to watch what his strengths and weaknesses are and where he’s at, even though you hear it from Gary,” Nationals outfield coach Bob Henley said.

Henley also had another duty: aid Soto on the basepaths. The teenager made a mistake about three weeks into his major-league life when he failed to tag up at second base during a Sunday game in Atlanta. The Nationals lost 4-2 in one of the season’s more bizarre games: Jeremy Hellickson pitched ⅓ of an inning, Jefry Rodriguez debuted out of the bullpen as emergency relief, Tanner Roark allowed a walkoff, two-run homer in the ninth. 

Washington was off the next day. Henley didn’t mention the mistake on the flight home or even directly when work began the following Tuesday. It came up when Soto went to apologize for being too far off the bag to tag, not realizing Ender Inciarte, one of the game’s elite defenders, would be able to zoom in and catch a pop-up.

“So he comes to me, he says, ‘Hey, Bob. In that situation…’” Henley said. “You know what I did? I said it’s completely my fault, Juan. That situation the other day was my fault. I said in that situation...here’s what I want to do: We’re going to have hand signals, nobody out situation that I remind you where you need to be because I need to get better with Juan and knowing where he’s at. And of course now in those situations we have hand signals as far as what you’re doing and reminders for him because he was a kid still playing with the best players on the planet.”

Soto turns 20 in May. Life will be different then. The league is expected to tantalize him with more off-speed pitches. Charts and information about his weaknesses will abound. Everyone knows his name. 

He will be different, too. At least to a degree. Soto will be at major league spring training for the first time. He’ll own all the knowledge about parks, and new planes and the big league life. Expectations will also exist, taking over for last year’s anonymity. Those circumstances aren’t the least bit jarring to him.

"I think, do my routine, and no change,” Soto said. “If that worked I got to keep going until I retired."

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Bryce Harper slid in to Rhys Hoskins' latest Instagram and we're kinda worried

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Rhys Hoskins / Instagram

Bryce Harper slid in to Rhys Hoskins' latest Instagram and we're kinda worried

No one knows when Bryce Harper will sign a contract – perhaps not even Harper himself – but he is fueling speculation every chance he gets.

 

The Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins posted a picture from the team’s spring training site in Clearwater, Florida.

 

View this post on Instagram

missed this walk to work🌴

A post shared by Rhys Hoskins (@rhystothehoskins) on

 

This itself is not newsworthy. Plenty of players have posted pictures of their arrivals at spring training. Scroll through the comments, however, and you will notice that Harper commented “Suhhhhh kiiiiiiid.” This comes one day after Hoskins commented on a Valentine’s Day post by Harper dedicated to his wife, Kayla.

 

View this post on Instagram

My Funny Valentine!😂🥰 #Greys

A post shared by Bryce Harper (@bharper3407) on

 

The Phillies are among the teams rumored to be potential suitors for the 2015 NL MVP. Does this mean Harper is going to sign with one of the Nationals’ biggest rivals and remain in the NL East? No idea. But Harper is doing a good job of holding onto everyone’s attention while he remains undecided.

 

This is not the first time Harper has fueled speculation via social media.

 

Hoskins posted this picture on Instagram back in December, with the caption “loading…”

 

View this post on Instagram

loading...🔋

A post shared by Rhys Hoskins (@rhystothehoskins) on

 

On Super Bowl Sunday, Harper tweeted this:

 

 

This week, Harper unfollowed a number of Washington Capitals on Twitter, according to Caps winger Tom Wilson:

 

 

In January, MLB The Show’s twitter account posted a series of simulations showcasing how some team’s seasons might look with Harper in the fold. He quoted some of those tweets with some cryptic emojis:

 

 

That same account also tweeted “You'll want to keep an eye on this account tomorrow... just saying,” back on January 28th.

 

 

This fueled speculation that the video game’s cover would be released the next day and Harper, as the cover athlete, would reveal his destination by appearing on the cover in his new team’s uniform. The cover was released, but it featured Harper in a plain white hoodie.

 

For now, Harper watch continues. As a matter of fact, you should go ahead and refresh your Twitter and Instagram feeds – odds are he posted another cryptic tweet or comment while you were reading this.

 

 

 

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MLB insiders from around the league share their opinions on Bryce Harper

MLB insiders from around the league share their opinions on Bryce Harper

The battle for Bryce Harper is all anyone can talk about in Washington, D.C. and at Nationals Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Florida. Apparently, it’s all anyone can talk about anywhere.

This week on D.C. Sports Live, MLB insiders from NBC Sports regional networks around the country gathered to discuss the Bryce Harper sweepstakes, while making predictions on where the coveted slugger would end up playing in 2019 and beyond.

There wasn’t one consensus pick among the four insiders, though none of them predicted San Diego or Chicago as Harper’s final destination. The Giants, Phillies, and Nationals themselves seemingly stand out from the pack as the most likely options, though of course that is subject to change at any point.

“I think there’s a very slight, slight chance that he returns to the Nationals,” said NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas. “Those are very low odds to me.”

Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area felt differently from Dybas, thanks to a conversation with one of the Giants.

“I asked a player this today, and he predicted the Nationals,” Pavlovic said. “So I’m going to go with him.”

While the Phillies have long been viewed as one of the favorites, NBC Sports Philadelphia’s insider, Jim Salisbury, agreed with Pavlovic, saying he still thinks “there’s a chance he ends up back with the Nationals.”

Vinnie Duber of NBC Sports Chicago rounded out the predictions by saying the Phillies make a lot of sense.

Interestingly, none of the insiders except Salisbury seemed too confident in the teams they personally cover as Harper’s final destination. Pavlovic feels the Giants aren’t interested in giving any player $100 million, let alone the rumored $300 million the Nationals offered, meaning it would be difficult for San Francisco to reach a number Harper likes.

The Phillies obviously have money and a need on the roster, but Salisbury feels the organization isn’t too picky between Harper or the other remaining big fish, Manny Machado.

“At this point here in Philadelphia, it’s a jump ball between Machado and Harper,” Salisbury described. “And whoever wants it, come and get it, and you’ll be a Phillie.”

The game of musical chairs between the teams, Harper, Machado, and every other free agent is still alive and well. It’s clear from the roundtable that no one is really sure where Harper will end up. We’re all playing the same waiting game when it comes to the superstar.

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