- - Sunday, April 22, 2018

HAGERSTOWN, MD. | Hagerstown Suns center fielder Juan Soto turned his back to home and began sprinting to the fence in the top of the third inning.

The ball hit off the center field wall and, on one bounce, Soto, 19, fielded, turned and fired a strike to the infield to hold Orioles prospect Will Robertson to a double in a game last week.

Gary Thurman, an outfield coordinator for the Nationals’ minor league system, was impressed — and pleased.

“Did he play that perfectly or what?” Thurman said to minor league pitching coordinator Paul Menhart, sitting next to him behind home plate here at aging Municipal Stadium.

Soto has played mostly right field in the minors, but Thurman wants him to be able to play all three outfield spots as he works his way up the Washington farm system.

“He has good work habits. He just needs to play,” Thurman said. “He is well beyond his years in a lot of ways.”

That is especially true when he stands in the batter’s box, as Soto is making a name for himself around the minors as one of the best hitting prospects in baseball.

A left-handed hitter, Soto has done nothing but hit consistently for a high average since he began his pro career after he was signed as a undrafted free agent by the Nationals. He was ranked as the No. 56 prospect in the minors prior to this season by Baseball America and the No. 2 prospect in the Washington system.

In games through Saturday for the Suns, a member of the low Single-A South Atlantic League, the lefty swinger from the Dominican Republic was batting .389 (21-for-54) with five doubles, three triples and five homers with 24 RBIs. He had an OPS of 1.378.

Soto entered this season with a career average of .362 in 83 minor league games.

“What makes me a good hitter is I just try to do my routine in the (batting) cages every day. Then I go to the game and see (the ball) and hit and let the routine work,” said Soto, in improving English.

He hit .441 during a 10-game stretch through Saturday.

“He is consistent from at-bat to at-bat,” said Mark Scialabba, the director of player development for the Nationals. “He has a chance to be very good defensively and as a baserunner as well.”

Soto grew up in the Dominican Republic and said his father and uncle began throwing baseballs to him by the time he was 3. “I played outfield and pitcher when I was 12 years old. Then I started doing more things in the outfield and they made me an outfielder,” he said.

He was a few months shy of his 17th birthday when he signed with the Nationals on July 2, 2015. Soto began his pro career the following April. And the hitting came easier than learning English.

“Just the language was the hardest part,” he said. “I started talking and talking. (But) then we play the same (type of) ball everywhere.”

He broke into the minors as the Gulf Coast League MVP in 2016, when he led the league in hitting at .361.

That was even more impressive since he was 17 — 2.5 years younger than the league average.

Last season, he battled ankle and hamate injuries while hitting .320 in nine games in the Gulf Coast League and .360 in 23 games with Hagerstown.

So how long until he is promoted to a higher level? The next stops up the ladder are high Single-A Potomac of the Carolina League and Double-A Harrisburg of the Eastern League.

“I just want to do my job. They make the decisions,” he said of the Nationals. “I just keep playing hard.”

In a recent game, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Soto came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the last of the ninth with a chance to hit a game-winner. Instead, he lined out to left field, then walked slowly to the dugout. Still, he stayed and signed autographs and was the last player to reach the clubhouse before embarking on a long bus trip to Lexington, Kentucky.

“I like to do that for the people and the fans,” he said of staying and meeting fans. “That is why I play.”

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