Even the most moribund farm systems have a surplus of big arms stockpiled in the hope that a few guys eventually figure it out. The Tigers especially are notorious for carrying a bunch of hard throwers with shoddy command. Rarely does anyone in that profile really put it together, but lefty Gregory Soto made big strides in that direction in 2017.
It’s been a while since a previously unheralded Tigers farmhand drew this much unanimous praise from the industry. Soto had a bow added to his spectacular breakout campaign when he was named MLB Pipeline’s Pitcher of the Year in the Tigers’ system. Now that he’s on the radar, Soto will have a lot of eyes on him in 2018 as he looks to take the step into the upper levels of the minor leagues. How he handles it should give the Tigers a better idea what to expect in the years ahead.
The Tigers signed Soto as an 18 year old out of the Dominican Republic back in 2013. The strikeout ability, largely revolving around his fastball, was always roughly in evidence. So was a distinct lack of control. Still, Soto was effective at every stop in rookie ball despite high walk rates as he worked to develop a changeup and breaking ball. While that progress was enough to perk interest from prospect hounds, Soto didn’t reach Single-A ball until 2017.
However, when Soto finally arrived in West Michigan, he arrived with a bang. Some tweaks and refinement of his arsenal really sprung his strikeout touch, and while the walks were still a problem, his stuff was absolutely overpowering. He punched out 116 batters in 96 innings, dominating the Midwest League and picking up accolades from numerous prospect sites along the way. Soto finished the year strong with a handful of starts for the Lakeland Flying Tigers after a late season promotion, and saw his stock rise substantially on industry prospect lists.
Soto has stuff for days. He absolutely dominates with a power fastball that some grade as a future double-plus offering. He backs it with a hybrid breaking ball that has serious bat missing movement. The stuff to be at least a major league reliever, and potentially a very good one, is already in evidence. As a result, Soto comes with a reasonably high floor for a pitcher of his type.
Soto ditched his fourseam fastball to focus solely on his two-seamer this season, and that simplification may have improved his feel and command. And it didn’t diminish his ability to blow away hitters at the top of the zone when he wanted to. His velocity is very good, but not jaw-dropping, typically sitting 93-94 miles per hour, but he has the capacity to ramp it all the way up to 98 miles per hour when he chooses. The angle he gets on it, combined with late life, made the pitch hell on wheels against Midwest League and Florida State League hitters alike in 2017.
Baseball Prospectus graded Soto’s fastball the best in the Midwest League this season.
...the Tigers will give him every chance to stay in a starter’s role due to his potential 70 grade fastball. It explodes on hitters with late life, touching 98mph and has some arm side run. The command can get loose at times, but Soto is athletic enough that it profiles as average.
You’ll see Soto’s breaking ball described as a curveball just about everywhere, and it certainly looks more like a curve than a slider. But Soto himself calls it a slider, so we’ll take that under consideration. A slurve is probably the best term for it. Soto gets 11-5 break on the pitch, and showed improved command of it this season, throwing it for strikes and also burying it for whiffs.
The step forward in command was really the story of Soto’s season, despite ongoing trouble with walks. Soto has the size you’d like in a starter, and maintains his velocity deep in games. There’s a long way to go to become a major league starter yet. But the improvements Soto made this season, and his overall athleticism, give the Tigers hope that there is more refinement yet to come. He’ll need it to stay on a starter’s track.
One can look back through Soto’s walk rates through his years in rookie ball, and see little difference from his numbers in 2017. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. By all accounts, there were far fewer waste pitches and long stretches of lost control. Yet the fact remains that there is much work to be done if Soto is going to hit his ceiling as a middle of the rotation arm.
The key issue, as is nearly always the case, is command. Soto’s wildness gave way to better control this year, and perhaps his success in getting inexperienced hitters to chase just out of the zone leads him to nibble more than he should. But you can’t walk a batter every other inning and survive in the upper levels of the minor leagues.
Soto will also need to refine his changeup a little more along the way. The fact that his fastball is so potent means that he doesn’t necessarily need a plus changeup to be successful with it, but it needs work regardless. With both his offspeed pitches, Soto will occasionally telegraph them too much to fool more experienced eyes, and he’ll need a little more fine-tuning to throw them consistently without an obvious loss of arm speed.
In the end, Soto’s future will rest on his ability to spot his fastball with some precision. He has a pretty long-armed, crossfire delivery that may always be a bit tricky to repeat. However, Soto does show some feel to manipulate movement on his stuff. That feel, coupled with good balance and overall athleticism will get him the benefit of the doubt with these issues a while longer. If he struggles to take the next step, you’re probably looking at more of a relief candidate, but a pretty good one at that.
Projected team: Advanced-A Lakeland Flying Tigers
Soto got his feet wet with the Flying Tigers last season, but with only 28 innings there, it’s a safe bet that he’ll return to start the 2018 campaign. The Tigers’ organization may face just a bit of a crunch in terms of Double-A starting pitchers, so the chances of a quick move to Erie are probably nil. However, if Soto really does show better ability to limit the free passes this spring, he’s not far from taking the leap. Most likely you’ll see him join the SeaWolves sometime around mid-summer if all goes to plan.