Swing Change Helps Soto's Power Emerge
ZEBULON, N.C.—Neftali Soto was all over the diamond the first four years of his professional career.
He made appearances at shortstop, third and even behind the plate. This season with Double-A Carolina, the 22-year-old has settled in at first base for the Reds, and now it's the ball that's traveling all over the park.
After hitting 21 home runs last year at high Class A Lynchburg, Soto had blasted 26 already this season. The spike in strength is mostly coming from Soto's newly added leg kick, but hitting coach Ryan Jackson thinks his new defensive home is helping too.
"I think first and foremost," Jackson said, "some of his offensive success is by him being able to settle in to a position. . . So I think a chance to settle in there helps him offensively. As far as what he came in to this spring training with, he started going with a leg kick, which he hadn't really gone to in the past and from that comes this source of power that we're seeing come out. On the flip side, it's a difficult thing as far as timing is concerned. So whereas you're able to generate more (power) it's a little bit more difficult to gain your timing off that. I think he's had a lot of success with it in the early going."
Soto said that Jackson's work with him this season has helped him iron out some of the timing issues that come with the new mechanical piece of his swing.
"Pitchers are messing with his timing with their slide steps to the plate," Jackson said. "There are times when the pitchers don't even need to use the slide step, but they're doing it just to get with his timing, his leg kick. So there are times when he has to just set it down and go conventional at times, and I think that's part of what makes him good his ability to adjust, his aptitude."
Carolina manager David Bell agrees that versatility is one of Soto's best attributes, and it doesn't hurt that he's developing a well-rounded game at the plate and in the field.
"He's just all around become a lot more sound in his approach." Bell said. "I would say he's very balanced and he's very level with his swing. He has good power to all over the ballpark. That makes it a lot easier to hit when you know you can be late on a fastball and still have a chance to hit a home run to the opposite field."
Soto may have settled in at one position, but he and his Mudcats teammates have been all over the Southeast.
Carolina's two closest Southern League opponents are Chattanooga and Jacksonville, both trips of more than 450 miles. Bus rides of eight to 10 hours can take their toll.
Soto says that it's something he's just had to accept as part of the game but that it's not always so easy.
"At the start of the season I would get off the bus and be so tired, but after that you get used to it," Soto said.
Soto chuckled as he added, "It's not that bad, At least Chattanooga's close. Montgomery's not that far."
In his third season managing the Mudcats, Bell is familiar with the weary road in the Southern League. He said the Reds and the Mudcats have taken extra measures to improve the comfort of the players, including the addition of a sleeper bus and the occasional airplane flight.
"It's never easy, but if you go through challenges it can make you better in a lot a ways." Bell said. "That's the only way to look at it."
Finding A Home
Soto split last season at Lynchburg between catcher, third and first base before making the switch to full-time duty at first this season. He has also filled the DH role a handful of times, something he doesn't particularly care for. The transition to first has been relatively smooth for Soto.
Carolina shortstop Miguel Rojas credits working with Barry Larkin in spring training for the strength of the Mudcat infielders, and he said he thinks Soto can be competent at any position he plays.
"Now I can tell the organization he can play third or short." Rojas said. "First is a pretty good spot. He can hit for power. I absolutely know he can play third, any point in the season not just here in Double-A, in Triple-A or the major leagues he can play any position, too."
Having that flexibility could be key for Soto as he makes his way up the ladder in the organization because the talent the Reds have at first base is not lost on him.
"We got (Joey) Votto—MVP. We got Yonder (Alonso)—first-rounder," Soto said. "So yeah, it's kind of tough but we'll see what (the Reds) do."
Bell understands that it can be difficult for a player to see talent like that in front of him on a depth chart, but he doesn't think that will push back Soto's shot at the major leagues. Given Soto's ability to adjust, Bell thinks he could break in to the league in a variety of roles.
"First base looks like right now, his position to be an everyday player in the major leagues at some point," Bell said. "But if he has to break in to the big leagues as a guy that plays multiple positions I think that will make it a lot easier for him as it does for a lot of guys.
"If there's somebody that's going to help you win in the big leagues they're going to see that that happen and I think as long as he continues to play and improve like he has that's probably what's going to happen at some point. He's going to force the decision."