A few years back, Dominican scout Modesto Ulloa was the first to alert the Nationals to a left-handed pitcher/outfielder he wanted them to take a look at.
Ulloa brought in Nationals vice president and assistant general manager of international operations Johnny DiPuglia to a workout in the Dominican Republic to see a teenager named Juan Soto.
Ulloa has been a Dominican scout for the Indians, Padres and Nationals for many seasons. He signed the likes of Osvaldo Abreu, Freddy Guzmán and Yordany Ramirez and has an excellent reputation for finding talent. Ulloa and DiPuglia have a trusted relationship built on years of work together.
DiPuglia at first did not see a five-tool player in Soto, but one major tool that stood out: Soto’s swing.
“Ulloa saw him as a left-handed pitcher and he liked him as a hitter. So we went to go see him with (Dominican scout Christian “Niche” Batista), who we have a really good relationship with, he is the buscone. It wasn’t your prototypical evaluation. He didn’t run the 60-yard dash very well. He wasn’t very physical. He wasn’t playing center field. But he swung the bat really well.”
The next time the Nats saw Soto in a workout was in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., not far from DiPuglia’s home. This second workout was even more impressive. DiPuglia quickly noticed how Soto separated himself from other players by the way he carried himself.
“I went over to see him and he did everything you wanted to see at the plate,” DiPuglia said. “The makeup was off the charts. That’s the thing about those kids: A lot of those kids have a lot of tools, a lot of ability, but sometimes the makeup gets them in trouble.
“You could put Juan Soto in a Marine uniform and he will look like a Marine. Some of these kids you put them in a Marine uniform and you say ‘Eh, that guy is not a Marine.’ “
Batista saw early on that Soto wasn’t going to be a pitcher. His future was that amazing swing. And the Nationals were lucky enough to get eyes on Soto early on and see things in Soto other teams did not.
“He didn’t have much upside as a left-handed pitcher and Niche wanted to make him a left-handed hitter,” DiPuglia said. “So they started that track. With our relationship that we have with buscone Modesto, he got us in there early so we were allowed to do the evaluation earlier than most.
“There wasn’t really a lot of clubs on Soto, because he wasn’t your prototypical high-tool guy. I think the White Sox and maybe the Royals were on him. I think he got offered more money at the end by Arizona because they saw us in Fort Lauderdale when we locked him up. He turned them down.”
The baseball world got to see what Soto is capable of in last year’s postseason run for the Nats. Soto had 18 hits in 17 games, including three doubles and five homers with 14 RBIs. His postseason OPS was .927.
“I am pretty good friends with (10-time All-Star) David Ortiz and he told me, ‘Johnny, this guy is different. This guy comes up and asks me questions that I have never heard,’ ” DiPuglia recalled. “Soto told Houston catcher Robinson Chirinos that if Justin Verlander throws him that ball an inch down that he was going to crush it. ‘Bring the ball down.’ He just sees things that other people don’t see at the plate.”
One reason DiPuglia believes Soto is such a good big league hitter is that he has almost bionic vision at the plate.
“Soto probably has 20/10 vision,” DiPuglia said. “The reason why Dustin Pedroia was such a good hitter is Pedroia has 20/8 vision. It’s unbelievable. Soto sees things that the normal naked eye doesn’t see. That’s the kind of (stuff) Barry Bonds used to see.”
But Soto is also a student of the game. DiPuglia said Nats hitting coach Kevin Long and his staff marveled at how advanced Soto was for a kid who started last season at 20. In their strategy sessions and batting cage workouts, Soto would come over to Long and ask questions about pitch sequencing and pitch selection.
“He has got to have a photographic memory,” DiPuglia said. “He does. If you would talk to Kevin, he would tell you that some of the questions this kid asks are UFO-ish. You don’t hear (these questions). Like he sees the spin of breaking ball, he sees the dot on the right-hand corner of the ball. When the ball hits the dirt, he can see the dirt coming off the ball. It’s a different type of stuff.”
DiPuglia compares Soto and his elite baseball skill to players like the late Kobe Bryant in the NBA. Players that were advanced for their age. You don’t see baseball skill like what Soto has very often. DiPuglia ventures to say he may never be able to sign a player of Soto’s talents again. The kid is one of a kind.
“When I think of Juan Soto I think of him as the Latin Mamba,” DiPuglia said. “Like Kobe is the Black Mamba, Soto is the Latin Mamba. He wants to win. He wants to beat you. He excelled in English. He learned English in one year. He is clean-shaven. He is different. He is different from what I was accustomed to seeing from the Dominican.”