Notes on Soto and Zimmerman

Most times when Nationals manager Davey Martinez is made available to the national media, there will be a question about the potential of Juan Soto.

What was interesting from Martinez’s answer to a recent question about Soto’s ceiling as a ballplayer was what he ultimately expects from him. The skipper said he wanted no part of putting a cap on Soto’s potential to become a complete ballplayer. Why? Because Soto has the talent - but maybe even more importantly - the drive, to be the best at every facet of his game.

“Right now, I don’t want to put a ceiling on him,” Martinez said during last week’s Zoom video call with reporters. “He’s getting better and better every time I see him, every time he steps on the field. I sat back and watched the way he played intuitively. This guy wants to steal 25 to 30 bases in one year. And if you watch him, he studies pitchers. Right now, he understands when he needs to steal (and) when he doesn’t need to steal, and he wants to get better at it.”

Thumbnail image for Soto-Swings-White-Nats-Sidebar.jpgSo much has been said about Soto’s ability to hit. But Soto also wants to put pressure on the pitcher when he gets on base and find ways to get better at stealing bases. Soto stole a career-high 12 bases in 2019. And you can see from his steal attempts per game that those number have gone up each season: from .060 in 2018, to .086 in 2019 to .170 steal attempts per game in 2020.

Then there was the experiment of moving Soto to right field for six games at the end of the 2020 season. Martinez said at the time that the Nationals wanted to try Soto out there with the possibility of picking up another power bat to play left field in 2021.

“I messed around with him last year and I said, ‘How do you feel about playing right field?’ “, Martinez said. “He said: ‘I’d love it! That’s my favorite position.’ And then all of a sudden out of nowhere he says, ‘If you need me to play center field, I can do that too.’ This kids just loves the game and wants to play and wants to get better.”

Soto put up Most Valuable Player numbers in 2020. One reason for his ability to improve at the plate - even when pitchers adjust to him - is the patience to find his pitch in two-strike counts. He hit .212 with two strikes in 2018, .197 in 2019 and .226 in 2020. These numbers can be taken out of context a bit because in he played 150 games in 2019 and just 47 in 2020, but it still is an interesting statistic in measuring his ability to find the baseball when the pitcher seemingly has the advantage.

“I talked to him a lot this year about how he felt at the plate and what he learned about himself,” Martinez said. “His idea was he wants to get better with two strikes. He’s pretty good. But he said, ‘I want to get better with two strikes and understand what I can do with two strikes, especially with guys on base, sing the whole field.’ For a (22)-year-old kid to be thinking that way in the winter time, it’s pretty impressive.”

* First baseman Ryan Zimmerman is working out in the batting cage and intends to play in 2021, according The Washington Post. Zimmerman, 36, opted out of playing in 2020 and last appeared in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series. He was the first Nats player to hit a home run in the Fall Classic.

General manager Mike Rizzo said he has not spoken to Zimmerman that much recently, but they do keep in touch.

“It’s been weeks. I’ve communicated with him via text messages,” Rizzo said. “We always seem to keep in contact pretty good.”

If Zimmerman returns, that would be good news for Rizzo if he believes the Nats can platoon again at first base. But now Rizzo must look in a different direction to solidify a platoon after 37-year-old Howie Kendrick has announced his retirement Monday night.

Rizzo is looking for a left-handed-hitting first baseman to platoon with Zimmerman. It has worked in years past to a degree. Among the left-handed-hitting free agents available at first base are Danny Santana (a switch-hitter), Mitch Moreland and Logan Morrison.

Moreland seems like the most intriguing of the bunch. At 35, he would be a quick buy for one or two seasons as the Nats look for the offense to go with their starting pitching in their quest to get back to the top of the National League East. Moreland had an off year after being traded to the Padres, but he was scorching the ball with the Red Sox, with a .328 average and a 1.177 OPS. He won a Gold Glove in 2016 and was named an All-Star the same season the Red Sox won it all.

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