Height 6-2, Weight 180, B/T: R/R, DOB: 2/28/1989
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #9
Neftali Soto had one of the more interesting years of any Reds prospect, but ultimately it was another somewhat lackluster year from a development point of view. At this point, it is time for the Reds to focus on what Soto does well, rather than what he does poorly. It's clear that Soto isn't going to be an impact defensive player, but he has power that just about rivals anyone in the system and allow him to develop into an impact offensive talent.
Heading into 2011, it would seem wise for the Reds to settle on first base as his long-term position and would be advisable for Soto to start hitting like one.
It was an odd season for Soto, who repeated high-A. Fortunately for him, the Reds changed affiliates from the pitcher's paradise Sarasota to the more hitter friendly Lynchburg.
He flashed the impressive power and hit to the tune of .268/.319/.460/.778 in 522 ABs. He hit 33 doubles, 2 triples, and 21 homers to go along with a 105/32 K/BB ratio. In his second go-around at high-A, Soto boosted his OPS by .136 points. Unfortunately, his line drive rate plummeted from 23% in 2009 down to 12% in 2010.
Oddly enough, Soto was much more productive against righthanders (.827 OPS in 364 ABs) than he was against lefties (.666 OPS in 158 ABs), which is something that should tip back into his favor as his development continues. It's rather rare for hitters to have a reverse platoon split, but players in the lower minors simply don't have much experience against strong lefties. However, it seems likely that the uninspiring performance against southpaws will normalize as he gains more experience. If so, then his overall numbers will also improve.
Overall, it wasn't a bad performance for Soto, as it is 13% easier to hit a double and 9% harder to hit a homer in Lynchburg than the average park. So, Soto certainly earned each and everyone of the 12 homers he hit at home. Of course, power has never been in question for Soto, but the development of his on-base skill still lags dangerously behind.
Since his arrival in the organization, Soto's offensive profile has been that of an early-count type hitter, as both his walk and strikeout rates have been low. Walks and strikeouts both require a hitter to see a significant amount of pitches, so the more pitches a hitter sees the more likely those outcomes become. However, unlike Juan Francisco who piles up the negative late-count outcomes without reaping many of the positive late-count outcomes, Soto manages to avoid both in equal measure.
When he arrived on the scene, I thought Soto had the type of swing that would enable him to hit for both average and power. So, even though the on-base skill was lacking, he still seemed an interesting and potentially productive offensive prospect. However, he has yet to put it together over a long enough stretch to even come close to reaching his ceiling.
Donning the Tools of Ignorance and Defensive Value
In last year's write up, I was skeptical about the rumors circulating that Soto might be tried behind the plate. In 2010, those rumors were proven true. It was a curious decision, but the front office decided to give Soto some work at the catcher position. Given my view of Soto as an offense-first type prospect, it seemed odd to force him to focus on something other than developing his "hit tool."
The obvious rationale was that Reds were trying to drive up his player value by boosting his positional value. However, the real question is whether Soto is the type of player who can handle such a switch.
Catcher is not only the most difficult position on the defensive spectrum, but also the most unique, which raises the question of how the skills required to play the position compare with those required to play the other premier defensive positions. It's clear that the skills that make a player a good shortstop are equally applicable to second base. But, is the skill set of the catcher more comparable to a shortstop? Or, more comparable to skills found at the lower end of the spectrum?
So, can a player like Soto, who is likely best suited for first base, jump from one extreme to another? Or, does catcher require those skills inherent in those positions closest to it on the spectrum?
When I think about players who have successfully transitioned both back behind the plate and away from it, there are three players that come to mind: Brandon Inge, Buster Posey, and Craig Biggio.
Brandon Inge attending Virginia Commonwealth University, where he excelled as both a shortstop and a relief pitcher. The Tigers selected him in the 2nd round of the 1998 draft and immediately shifted him to catcher. While the catching experiment didn't pan out, it wasn't because Inge was a defensive liability. Quite the contrary, Inge was a very strong defensive catcher, but the tools of ignorance simply sapped his offensive production to the point where he wasn't a viable everyday player. The physical demands of the position dragged down his production to the point where the Tigers were forced to move him off the position. When he was moved to the hot corner, his offensive production improved to the point where he was a viable starter.
Next up is Buster Posey. As a freshman at Florida State, Posey was the full-time starter at shortstop and a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American. As a sophomore, he was moved behind the plate and the rest is pretty much history. After just one season at the position, Posey was a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award, which is awarded to the best catcher in college baseball. And, of course, he just took home the hardware for the Rookie of the Year Award.
Finally, we have Craig Biggio, who arrived on the scene as a catcher. The Astros were so fond of his bat that they quickly shifted him to second base to save the wear and tear on his body and prolong his career. They feared that they would lose the value of his speed on the bases and his production at the plate far too soon.
These players have several things in common. First, they are all good defensive catchers. Second, they are all good defensive players at premier defensive positions. Inge is not only an exceptional defensive third baseman, but has the athleticism to capably handle the defensive positions higher up on the defensive spectrum. Third, they have good athleticism with strong footwork.
In the end, it does seem like the catcher transition is best handled by those who are coming from the premier defensive positions. Unfortunately, that just isn't the scenario with Neftali Soto.
Overall, Soto played 10 games behind the plate and the results were predictably rather rough. His fielding percentage was a mere .971, he allowed 2 passed balls, and caught only 1 out of 16 basestealers. When he wasn't catching, he played primarily first base. He played 91 games at first, 7 at thirdbase, and 10 behind the plate. So, he spent time at both ends of the defensive spectrum in 2010 and ultimately performed much better at first base.
When all is said and done, Soto projects as an offense-first prospect who is best suited to first base. His footwork isn't impressive and his footspeed is poor. His overall game seems a bit lethargic at times. As a result, he is lacking the quickness needed to move laterally to block balls in the dirt and the footwork to explode out of the crouch and into proper throwing position. In total, his athleticism just isn't strong enough to handle the catcher position.
While the catcher experiment was undoubtedly the most interesting aspect of Soto's year, the more important note is that he went from a full-time third baseman in 2009 to a near full-time first baseman in 2010. Ultimately, that's where he belongs.
Soto has a smooth swing that you don't often associate with righthanded hitters. His pre-pitch setup involves a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance and a high back elbow. Soto seems to tinker with his stride (more on that later), but after he strides he fires his hips, which creates significant rotational energy and generates the power in the swing. After he clears his hips, the bat comes around and through the zone. He does a nice job of controlling barrel of the bat and gets good extension in his swing. His slight uppercut creates good loft and carry on the ball.
Below you can see a few photos of Soto at the plate.
Despite the strong hip rotation, Soto maintains good balance throughout the swing. However, Soto seems to experiment with different strides and has yet to lock into a consistent lower body move.
In this first video, courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues, Soto uses a higher stride. He lifts his foot up high off the ground and brings it forward to transfer his weight and trigger the swing. These types of higher strides are typically used by hitters as timing mechanisms. The downside is that pitchers can upset that timing with good offspeed pitches, which work to get the hitter out on the front foot too early. Here, however, Soto uses it to great effect in hitting a long homerun.
In this next video, Soto is using an entirely different stride. I'm somewhat hopeful that he was just exaggerating this new stride to correct a perceived problem, because I fail to see how anyone can actually hit using this type of stride.
Anyway, take a quick look at Soto in this video clip courtesy of OPvideoNotOrioles on YouTube:
As you can see, his pre-pitch stance finds his weight significantly out over the front foot. In fact, it's so extreme that he even has a forward lean to his pre-pitch stance. As the pitcher winds and delivers, Soto shifts his weight back to his right foot and strides forward ever so slightly with his left foot. However, his stride is way too early. As a result, he ends up spread out well before the pitch enters the hitting box. You can actually see him waiting on the pitch from his spread out position.
This early stride creates two problems. First, spreading out too early saps the swing of power, as the hips simply cannot rotate effectively to power the swing. The wider the stance, the more difficult it is to get good hip rotation. And, when you factor in how early he spreads out, it is even more difficult to generate good hip action. Second, spreading out makes Soto very susceptible to offspeed pitches and pitches on the outer half. He simply cannot adjust to those pitches, as he has already committed towards the pitcher.
It's somewhat similar to the old axiom about playing first base. You stretch to meet the throw, not before the throw is made, because once you get spread out you simply cannot adjust to go get throws that arrive in an unexpected location.
The above clip is such an extreme example that I'd love to just write it off as some over-exaggerated coaching technique designed to rein in his high leg kick. However, it seems to me that he is doing something similar in the following clip courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues.
Below, he faces Johnny Cueto in a 2009 spring training game and again seems to be using a stride similar to what he used in the clip above. It's tougher to see because the video is taken from behind homeplate, but he again seems to have a forward lean in his pre-pitch stance and a very small, early stride towards the pitcher. Once again, he seems to be spread out way too soon, which robs him of good hip rotation in the swing.
Perhaps most tellingly in the two video clips in which he uses the early stride are the outcomes, as he grounds out weakly to the rightside in both at bats. He spread out too soon, which robbed the swing of the power generated by the lower half. By committing too soon, he is unable to adjust to pitches on the outer half. In the end, he is left with nothing but a weak arm swing that results in weak ground balls and easy outs for the pitcher.
When he hits with that type of stride, he may still be able to pull pitches with authority, but it's difficult to imagine him being able to effectively hit the ball to the opposite field. Obviously, more advanced competition will make it much more difficult for Soto to be a productive hitter while using only half the field. I'm not sure why or how often he is using such a stride, but I would encourage him to scrap it entirely, as it leaves him in poor hitting position and unable to properly adjust to offspeed pitches.
Ultimately, Soto's future will be determined by his hitting. And, as an offense-first prospect, he's got a lot of work to do as he ascends up the ladder. He's unlikely to ever develop a strong on-base skill, so he'll need to show the ability to hit for average and power if he's going to make it to the majors. If he can't demonstrate those abilities, then his career will likely fizzle out. You can't make a living at the bottom of the defensive spectrum without at least two of the three slash line components.
As his career unfolds, he seems to be following the Juan Francisco career path. Namely, he's sliding down the defensive spectrum and lacking the offensive game to justify a starting job at those positions. But, in fairness, Soto's production hasn't been in the same ballpark as Francisco's. The power is nice, but he simply must be more productive. Soto will need to elevate his offense in 2011, but for now he checks in at #16.