Height 6-2, Weight 180, B/T: R/R, DOB: 2/28/1989
2008 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #11
While the Reds graduated their impact prospects in 2008, a few players climbed the list to fill the void. Neftali Soto is quickly emerging as part of the next wave of impact bats in the system. He has the potential to be an impressive middle-of-the-order hitter at the Major League level. He has a sweet righthanded swing, which makes him somewhat unique in a farm system that seems to produce only lefthanded impact hitters.
The Reds may have graduated Jay Bruce and Joey Votto in 2008, but Soto is proving that the Reds farm system is not without promise on the offensive side.
Soto didn't make his 2008 debut until June, when he started off the season at the rookie Pioneer League with the Billings Mustangs. For the Mustangs, Soto wasted little time in ripping the ball all over the state of Montana. In 67 ABs, Soto posted a slash line of .388/.423/.746/1.169 with 10 doubles, 4 homers, and a 10/4 K/BB ratio. His performance included a .415 BABIP and impressive 22% line drive rate. As Soto continued to hit balls off the Beartooth Mountains, the Reds made the obvious choice to promote him to low-A Dayton.
At Dayton, Soto continued his strong offensive performance, posting a .324/.342/.500/.842 in 216 ABs. He also hit 7 homeruns with a 36/7 K/BB ratio. His line drive rate declined to 15%. While low-A pitchers did a better job against Soto, his level of performance as a 19-year old was still quite impressive.
The obvious drawback in Soto's hitting approach is his lack of walks. While I tend to come down on the side of plate discipline being an inborn tool rather than a learned skill, Soto is still young enough that his current walk rate may not be reflective of his true ability to control the strike zone. In addition, as he continues to build a reputation for being a fierce power hitter, pitchers will work him more carefully and he'll likely receive more walks as a result. Another potential mitigating factor for his poor walk rate is that Soto has fairly low strikeout rate. While Soto's current walk rate is only a tick above that of fellow power hitting prospect Juan Francisco, his strikeout rate is much better than Francisco's strikeout rate.
SWING AND HITTING SKILLS
Soto is the all-time youth homerun champ in Puerto Rico, earning the distinction by breaking former MLB slugger Juan Gonzalez's all-time homerun mark. Soto is also one of those rare players that actually make a right-handed swing look good.
His setup involves a slightly wider than shoulder width stance and a high back elbow. When the pitch is delivered, Soto takes a very small stride towards the pitcher to transfer his weight. He has explosive hip action, which creates substantial rotational velocity and generates tremendous bat speed. As he clears his hips out of the way, he brings his long, fluid swing to bear on the ball. Despite the impressive bat speed and longer swing, Soto's plus hand-eye coordination allows him to make consistent, hard contact. He seems to have good control of the barrel of the bat throughout the hitting zone. He simply doesn't have the same problem making contact that plagues other power hitters, which makes him a more complete hitter and a more compelling prospect.
Soto reminds me a bit of Dustin Pedroia in that respect, as he takes a massive hack at the pitch, but consistently gets the barrel of the bat on the ball. Such a long, aggressive swing isn't supposed to produce such consistent contact, but plus hand-eye coordination makes it possible.
Below you can see a few photos of Soto at the plate.
In the photo on the left, you can see Soto's strong set-up, which gives him a solid foundation for his swing. In the middle photo, you can see Soto's head staying down on the ball and the good extension, as he gets out-and-through the ball. Also, you can see that the rotational velocity of his swing and the impressive bat speed at times cause him to spin out or roll over on his front foot just a bit. In the photo on the right, Soto maintains good balance throughout his swing and he keeps both hands on the bat in his follow through. Again, it's more personal preference than anything, but I've always favored hitters who keep both hands on the bat in the follow through. Keeping both hands on the bat ensures stability throughout the swing and prevents the bleeding of power from the swing. Of course, some argue that by taking the top hand off the bat you improve power by increasing extension, but if the top hand comes off too early in the swing, then you risk losing power. Of course, you can be successful either way, but ultimately I'm not much of a disciple of the Walt Hriniak style of hitting.
Below, you can see a video clip of Soto in action. Here, he hits a bomb in impressive style for the Dayton Dragons.
And, here is a clip of Soto as an amateur in a homerun contest. You can see his impressive swing and raw power. In addition, there are some very interesting slow motion shots of his swing fron different angles at the tail end of the clip, so it's definitely worth your time.
Soto has very impressive swing for a prospect his age and he will go as far as it takes him. Hopefully, Soto can demonstrate a bit more patience and an improved ability to control the strike zone, as more advanced competition may be able to take advantage of his aggressive approach. While his hitting skills are both advanced and polished, his defensive skills are not.
DEFENSE AND POSITIONAL VALUE
Soto was a shortstop when the Reds drafted him, but he clearly wasn't going to stick at the position. His poor agility and lack of first step quickness made it inevitable that he would slide down the defensive spectrum. In 2009, Soto spent the majority of his time at third base and designated hitter. In the best case scenario, Soto would be able to stick at the hot corner, but it seems more likely that he'll have to shift to first base. He has the arm strength to handle third, but the accuracy on his throws isn't great. In addition, he's just not mobile or athletic enough for third base. As he fills out, he's likely to slide down the defensive spectrum yet again. Fortunately, he has the hitting skills to handle any position on the spectrum.
Soto is one of the most intriguing offensive prospects in the Reds' farm system. He has a sweet swing and impressive raw power. Unfortunately, he isn't a great athlete and his other skills don't measure up to his hitting ability, but his bat will likely be strong enough to carry him to the major league level. Power is usually the last tool to develop, so it'll be very interesting to see what happens to Soto's already impressive power as he continues to develop. Given his swing and his amateur pedigree, it may not be much of a stretch to see him quickly develop into one of the premier power hitting prospects in the minors. Ideally, he'll be able to pair his contact and power skills with good on-base skills, but even if he doesn't he could be an impact hitter at the MLB level.
Soto is still young and has a lot of development left, but his upside lands him at #2 on the list.