Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camps, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com will be visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today, we check in on the Washington Nationals.
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Washington Nationals believed they were getting a promising young hitter when they signed Dominican outfielder Juan Soto for $1.5 million, a franchise-record bonus for a Latin American teenager at that time, at the outset of the 2015-16 international period. However, not even they expected Soto to make an immediate impact like he did in his professional debut last season.
Soto's performance in fall instructional league after signing convinced the Nationals' player development staff that he could handle a bypassing of the Dominican Summer League in favor of a stateside assignment to the Gulf Coast League. Suffice it to say, the organization was correct in their assessment, as the then-17-year-old was named GCL MVP after pacing the circuit in average (.361) and slugging (.550) and ranking second in on-base percentage (.410).
Soto continued to rake after a late-season promotion to the New York-Penn League, too, posting a .429 average in six games with Class A Short Season Auburn.
"His pure hitting ability is just special," Nationals farm director Mark Scialabba said about Soto, the team's No. 3 prospect. "I think it starts with his foundation, meaning that he knows who he is as a hitter and what he's trying to do, which is so rare for a player his age."
Despite the high bar Soto set for himself last season, Scialabba believes the left-handed hitter was merely scratching the surface of his potential, especially as it relates to his power.
"The approach is incredibly advanced and allows him to control his strike zone, and he has the strength and physical maturity to barrel the baseball and drive it to the deep parts of the field," Scialabba said. "It's a short, compact swing path, but he gets extension through the ball and leverages it well when he gets the right pitch. And he's only going to get stronger.
"And it's not just that; he's also someone who's committed to becoming a great defender and baserunner -- he wants to be a complete player. He's professional with his approach to the game and life in general, and you can tell he's someone who's mature beyond his years."
Though he's spent much of the spring on the Minor League side of camp, Soto did get a taste of big league action earlier this month, coming off the bench to log an at-bat against the Cardinals on March 3. Meanwhile, the Nationals will continue to challenge him moving forward, and that includes a potential assignment to full-season ball for his age-18 campaign.
"He's certainly a candidate to go to [Class A] Hagerstown," said Scialabba, "and I don't think any of our staff doubts his ability to succeed there. It's a decision we'll make in a couple weeks as camp continues to unfold and we evaluate our rosters at each level."
The Nationals made a splash on the international front once again last summer as they willingly spent well beyond their allotted international bonus pool of $2,335,000 to sign a trio of 16-year-old Latin American shortstops. Of that group, Yasel Antuna (Nationals' No. 22 prospect) commanded a $3.9 million bonus, shattering Soto's club record from the previous year, while Luis Garcia (No. 11) and Jose Sanchez (No. 24) signed for $1.3 million and $950,000, respectively.
All three players have already opened eyes this spring in Minor League camp, and the Nationals believe they each have potential to follow in the footsteps of the club's top international signees from previous years such as Victor Robles and Soto.
"Each of them kind of stands out in their own way right now," Scialabba said. "Garcia has probably the most advanced approach of that group, with good bat speed and power potential down the road, and Sanchez has really impressed our staff so far with his defense. He has really quick hands and good footwork, and he's very agile with great range.
"Antuna's a switch-hitter who can drive the ball to all fields, with a patient-aggressive approach at the plate and feel for the strike zone, and he has a good glove and knows what he needs to do at shortstop. We like the overall balance in his approach to the game."
The trio are expected to begin the year in the extended spring training before embarking on their respective pro debuts, giving Scialabba and the rest of the Nats' staff several months to best determine each player's individual assignment.
"They're going to progress at their own rate," he said, "but we're going to build each one to give them the best chance of maximizing their potential and becoming the most complete player they can be."
Anderson Franco received the largest bonus in the Nationals' 2013-14 international class, signing for $900,000 on his 16th birthday in August. His hitting ability and power potential were on the display during his pro debut in Dominican Summer League, and he continued to impress the following year in his stateside debut while reaching the New York-Penn League at age 17.
A back injury kept Franco from making progress in 2016, however, and he continued to be bothered by it even after finally making his season debut in the Gulf Coast League in late July. In total, Franco appeared in just 24 games. But after an offseason spent rehabbing and strengthening his back, Franco has been a full-go this spring in Minor League camp.
"He's in a good spot physically right now with his back," Scialabba said about the Nats' No. 15 prospect. "Obviously we want him to stay healthy and on the field this year so he can continue to develop his approach offensively and work on his defense."
Speaking of Franco's defense, the third baseman has seen more time at the opposite infield corner this spring. It's an avenue for him to receive consistent at-bats moving forward in a system that already has a slew of talented third baseman ahead of him on the organizational depth chart.
"He'll continue to play third base but should see time at first and get some exposure there," said Scialabba. "This spring is the first time he's played first base, and our staff thinks he's taken to it very well."
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.