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2019 BYB Tigers Prospect #23: LHP Gregory Soto needs to perform in 2019

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After an underwhelming year, Soto has to find a way to channel the successes he had in 2017.

MLB: Detroit Tigers-Media Day Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

If we evaluated players based solely on their best night, lefthander Gregory Soto would surely be rated as one of the top 10 prospects in the Detroit Tigers’ system, if not the top five. His combination of big raw stuff, left-handedness, and arm strength creates a potent package when he is able to cobble together enough command to pull it all together. However, his placement in the 20s is a refection of how rarely all the pieces come together at once.

Because he was signed all the way back in 2012, Soto was put on the 40-man roster after the 2017 season. That puts a lot of pressure on him to perform well in 2019, as his poor numbers in 2018 put his status in question. If he fails, he could be jettisoned from the 40-man in favor of a more successful prospect needing protection from the next Rule 5 draft.

Background

A native of the Dominican Republic, Soto joined the Tigers organization eight years ago, taking five to make his full-season debut with the West Michigan Whitecaps in 2017. That first test went swimmingly, and he posted gaudy strikeout numbers and a shiny 2.25 ERA. A late-season stint in High-A went well, as he continued to blow away hitters in five starts. He was in a very good spot opening the 2018 season, but things didn’t go nearly as well.

Walks are the bane of Soto’s story, a trend that came to a head last season. His ERA nearly doubled, reaching a 4.45 mark. An ugly 4.05 FIP doesn’t inspire much more confidence. The biggest ding on his résumé was command; he walked 5.56 batters per nine innings. That’s an unacceptably high mark.

Strengths

As mentioned, Soto’s strength is his high-octane raw stuff. His fastball is an easy plus, sitting in the low-90s but with the ability to dial it up to the high-90s. The liveliness of the offering leads to plenty of weak contact and ground balls. He posted a huge 45.6 percent ground ball rate in 2018. He also stifled opposing batters’ power, with a 3.5 percent home run-to-fly ball rate (HR/FB%). Those are excellent traits to have, especially coupled with the number of hitters he strikes out.

His breaking ball is also a strength, reaching plus status when he is able to spin it well. It’s a true strikeout pitch at its best, with big 11-to-5 motion. It can be dropped into the zone for an early strike if the hitter is sitting on a fastball, or dip below the zone in a two-strike count to put him away.

On the strength of these two offerings alone, Soto could easily carve out a role in a major league bullpen if he is able to use them correctly on a regular basis. His ultimate ceiling is that of a mid-rotation starter, but that will take a lot of work to achieve.

Long story short, the building blocks are there for Soto to be a real weapon if he can harness them.

Weaknesses

Anyone who has followed the minor leagues for a little while has seen Soto’s type before, as there are a few in every system. His raw stuff is tantalizing, and he’s a force when facing young, raw hitters. That changes when he reaches higher levels, though, because his command is nothing short of abysmal. Once the ball leaves his hand, Soto often has little idea of where it will end up.

That’s a harsh evaluation, but it’s a well-deserved one. Soto has 30-grade command, according to FanGraphs. For those of you unfamiliar with the 20-80 scouting scale, that’s near the bottom of the barrel. It looked like Soto’s command had taken a step forward in 2017. That improvement, along with improving athleticism, could have vaulted him to succees in the high minors. His improvements were a house of cards, though, and collapsed when put against more polished hitters who were willing to work counts and take walks.

What’s more, Soto’s curveball that shows flashes of brilliance often fails to show up every night. Without a viable changeup, he needs that breaking ball to be consistently well above average to continue his march up the organizational ladder.

The problems that plague Soto are frustrating. When he is able to get all the pieces together, he’s a force to be reckoned with. Minor leaguers can’t hit him because his stuff is so good. He doesn’t get bombed out — even this past year, he only gave up four home runs. Instead, his starts are a death by a thousand paper cuts. He will determine his own fate, becoming either a nasty strikeout monster or another in a long line of prospect washouts.

Projected Team: High-A Lakeland Flying Tigers

Soto will begin the season by serving a 20-game suspension for “conduct detrimental to baseball.” That’s a mysterious term, but as reported by MLive’s Evan Woodberry, the suspension was not handed down for domestic violence, an arrest, drugs, or gambling. Both Low-A West Michigan and Double-A Erie will have starting rotations bursting at the seams with talent, so coming back strong with the Flying Tigers will be Soto’s last chance to prove he can kick it as a stater. If that works out, the Tigers will likely be aggressive in promoting him. He will turn 24 years old during spring training — far too old for his current level. If it doesn’t work out, he is likely to see considerable time in relief during the second half of 2019 and going forward into future years.