- - Wednesday, June 13, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

And on the 19th game, he rested.

Juan Soto’s first trip to Yankee Stadium marked the first time since May 21 that he wasn’t in the Nationals’ starting lineup. Manager Dave Martinez finally gave Soto a day off Tuesday, allowing the phenom to be an observer while soaking in the storied ballpark and fabled pinstripes.

Baseball fans in New York likely were disappointed, eager to see what the left-handed slugger might do with the right-field porch. Soto might not return to the Bronx for a couple of years unless Sports Illustrated’s World Series prediction proves true.

Martinez was bound to sit him at some point, but Soto didn’t make it an easy decision. Opening Day left fielder Adam Eaton has returned from the disabled list and will be a factor moving forward as Martinez decides who plays and where. But this situation isn’t very complicated:

Keep Soto in the lineup.

“Juan’s doing awesome,” Martinez told reporters last week when Eaton was activated. “It’s hard to send him down right now, really it is. He’s hitting right-handed, left-handed pitching, and he’s doing well. He’s going to get an opportunity to play. We’ll figure out the rest of this stuff as the days go on.”

If Martinez figures out his lineup as well as Soto has figured out the strike zone, we’ll probably see a lot less of Michael A. Taylor.

Taylor has raised his batting average to .220 after an awful start but continues to flash one of baseball’s best gloves in center. He made a spectacular over-the-shoulder grab Tuesday, running full speed toward the wall and sliding onto the warning track.

No one on the roster brings the same caliber of defense in center, not Eaton – who played 145 games there with the White Sox in 2015 — and not Bryce Harper — who last week played in the middle for the first time since 2015 and started there on Wednesday night. But if Soto continues to look like a 10-year veteran opposed to a 19-year-old kid, he leaves Martinez no choice but to play him.

A left-handed hitting outfield of Harper, Eaton and Soto is too tempting to resist. Soto made the case even greater with two home runs on Wednesday.

Logic suggests that Soto can’t possibly be as good long-term as he’s been through 72 major-league plate appearances. Then again, there’s no making sense of his numbers in the minors, either: a .362 batting average, .434 on-base percentage and .609 slugging percentage in three years across six leagues.

The guy knows how to make an impression.

He homered in his first-ever at-bat at Low A-Hagerstown this season, his second game at High-A Potomac, and his first game at Double-A Harrisburg. Soto has yet to homer in Triple A, but only because he skipped that level when several Nats went on the disabled list, necessitating his call-up two years ahead of schedule.

And on the first pitch he saw in his first big-league start? Soto merely swatted a three-run homer to left-center field.

Afterward he claimed he was “really nervous.” We couldn’t tell then and it’s even less-detectable now. If he had played enough to qualify, Soto would lead the Nats in batting average (.328) and on-base percentage (.431) and be tied with Eaton for the lead in on-base plus slugging (.972).

“He’s a special player,” Harper told reporters after Soto’s first start. “We’ve seen that throughout the minor leagues and we saw that in spring training as well. So we’re all just excited for him to be here and excited for him to help us out and we’re super proud of him.”

The question isn’t whether Soto will cool off.

It’s how much and what might he accomplish along the way? According to Stats by STATS, Ken Griffey Jr. is the only teenager in the live-ball era who recorded a .300-plus batting average and .500-plus slugging percentage through 20 career games. Soto is poised to surpass “The Kid” by becoming the only teenager in the live ball era with a .300/.400/.500 slash line through 20 games (minimum 50 plate appearances).

Players this good, this young, are exceedingly rare, nowadays (Harper, Mike Trout and Felix Hernandez) and in the past (Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb). Still, given that Soto’s entire pro experience consists of just 514 at-bats, it’s way too early to anoint him as a prodigy of historic proportions. But he merits the opportunity to be an everyday player until further notice.

I hope he enjoyed his day off. At this rate, Martinez shouldn’t give him many more.

⦁ Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.


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