[Edit: Doug’s Tuesday column usually focuses on the Reds’ minor league players. But with the prospect looming of a possible injury to Todd Frazier, and Doug’s expertise on Reds’ prospects, I asked him to consider writing a Neftali Soto 101 post for us. Thanks, Doug! – SPM]
Way back in 2007 the Cincinnati Reds selected Neftali Soto, a shortstop, out of Puerto Rico in the 3rd round of the draft at age 18. He hit well that season with a .303/.355/.454 line for the Gulf Coast League Reds. On the defensive side though there were some problems. He spent most of the time at shortstop, but played a handful of games at third base as well. That was the last season he would see more than a few games at shortstop as his range was already quite limited.
The next year Soto tore the cover off of the ball as a 19-year-old, splitting his season between Billings and Dayton as he hit .340/.362/.558 in 304 plate appearances. While the hitting numbers were nice, we started to see plate discipline issues creep up as he walked just 11 times while striking out 46. It was glossed over because of how well he hit, but in hindsight, more people should have made note of it.
Sure enough in the next season Soto really struggled as he hit just .248/.282/.362 in the Florida State League. To be fair, the Florida State League is widely considered to be the most pitcher-friendly league in the minors and it saps power more than any league around, which has been Soto’s biggest asset. His plate discipline remained an issue though. The next year Soto hit better and his plate discipline did improve but it was still below-average. His power started showing back up as he left the Florida State League, hitting 33 doubles, two triples and 21 home runs. He started to see playing time at first base during 2009 and found himself spending most of his time there during the 2010 campaign.
Something else happened in that 2010 campaign that was rather interesting — the Reds let Soto catch 10 games that year. From a tools perspective, the talent was there. He was athletic, had a strong enough arm and seemed to show receiving skills. In action though, he was quite raw, allowing two passed balls and throwing out just one of 16 attempted base stealers. The experiment was closed before the All-Star break.
2011 was Soto’s breakout season. He headed to Double-A at age 22 and saw four more games at the Triple-A level where he hit a total of 31 home runs despite just 396 at bats in the season. He hit .278/.333/.576 on the season, which is certainly a strong season. But once again the plate discipline was questionable as he drew just 26 walks and struck out 98 times. Here is what I wrote in my Prospect Guide after the season was over:
In 2012, he moved up to Triple-A where he spent the last two seasons. He posted a .313 on-base percentage in both and a .400 and .414 slugging percentage. Neither season was particularly successful, Soto held his own. His power didn’t play nearly as well at this new level. He hit just 29 home runs combining 2012-2013 after hitting 31 in 2011. The plate discipline issues remained, with Soto drawing 67 walks and striking out 219 times over the two season.
In the 2013 season, Soto began to see time again at third base, for the first time since 2010. He looked much better than he had in the past at third base, posting a .920 fielding percentage. That isn’t exactly outstanding, but was easily the highest of his career and he passed the eye test for playing acceptable defense at third. Soto actually spent more time at third than at first base during the 2013 season.
Then spring training rolled around this February and Neftali Soto showed up at camp with the pitchers and catchers. He worked as a catcher, four years after the last experiment (at least during the season) playing the position. Soto again showed off the tools behind the plate to give evaluators the belief that he could handle the spot at times. His unique ability to play both corner infield positions and catch helped him earn a spot on the Reds’ roster coming out of Goodyear.
A current scouting report for Neftali Soto probably would include acceptable defense at third and first base, while also probably being the best third catcher on any big league roster. While Soto won’t hurt you for an inning or three behind the plate, he probably isn’t a guy you want getting starts back there, either. Offensively the book on Soto remains the same — big time power and a solid hitting ability that play down because he expands the strike zone too often, leading to too much contact on bad pitches.
I still believe that Neftali Soto could hit 25+ home runs and for a good average, but only if he can tighten up his perception of the strike zone and plate discipline. The tools are there, but the execution is still very much a work in progress. Some times, players at Soto’s age can still figure it out, but more often than not they don’t and wind up as utility players. They can do a few things well, but don’t have the fully rounded game to be a starting player. At 25-years-old, there is still a little bit of time left for Soto, and his one at-bat every four games doesn’t help with development (though I understand how he is being used).