Neftali Soto has been swinging the hottest bat out of any Reds prospect, or player for that matter, through the team's first nine games of Spring Training.
He currently leads the organization in hits (eight), total bases (15) and doubles (four) this spring, and is also one of five players to hit a home run. His .500 batting average is tied for second on the team, only behind that of Skip Schumaker's .600 clip. Most impressively, he is yet to strike out in his first 16 at-bats after going down on K's 103 times in 2013.
"A lot of these younger players that are in camp right now are getting a lot of playing time and a lot of at-bats - as many if not more than the regulars," manager Bryan Price told Mark Sheldon of MLB.com. "(Soto's) taking advantage of it. He's not missing good pitches to hit out over the plate. He's got a nice right-center approach. He's driving the ball from right-center to left-center. The approach is there."
Despite the early praise, Price and the Reds understand the sample size thus far is small. They want to see more consistency out of Soto before they feel comfortable with him as a viable option off of the bench in Great American Ball Park.
"He has to have a more prolific season at Triple-A," Price said. "He's been a solid player for us in Louisville, but if you're going to play first base, you have to do some real damage."
At this point, particularly with Joey Votto locked up in Cincinnati until the 2023 season, it doesn't appear Soto's future is at first base. Last season, the 25-year-old Puerto Rican made the move across the diamond and appeared in 76 games for the Triple-A Louisville Bats at third base. He was second on the team in a number of offensive categories including batting average (.271), home runs (15) and RBI (61). Additionally, he was named the organization's Minor League Player of the Month in April after hitting .318 with two home runs and eight RBI in 18 games. Soto made his Major League debut on May 18, 2013 and appeared in 13 games between three separate stints with Cincinnati.
The former third round selection of the June 2007 First-Year Player Draft has been impressive the last year or so, and it will be hard for the organization to keep him out of the big league clubhouse if he continues to hit.
In order to give himself what may be his best shot of making the Reds roster in the future, Soto has put in extra time at catcher during team workouts and bullpens sessions this spring. His only prior experience at the position came in 2010 when he caught 10 games for the Class-A Lynchburg Hillcats.
"I've got to take it more seriously now that I'm 25," Soto said. "I think I'm ready to be in the big leagues. I want to be there. Anything that would help me get there is great for me."
Cincinnati saw one veteran catcher go and other one arrive this offseason. Longtime Red Ryan Hanigan was dealt to Tampa Bay in a three-team trade that also saw 22-year-old pitcher David Holmberg come to Cincinnati. In order to replace Hanigan, the Reds signed free agent catcher Brayan Peña to a two-year contract this offseason. However, at 32 years old and without a fine-tuned skill set behind the plate, it's uncertain what kind of catcher Peña can be. Soto's potential move to catcher, depending on his progression, could enable Price to use Pena as a pinch hitter more often, rather than a primary backup to Devin Mesoraco.
"That adds value," Price said of the possibility. "There's also a feeling in here that (Soto) has a chance to be better than a third catcher. We're getting good reports from [catching coordinator] Mike Stefanski on his development. No one is going to say right now that he won't move up the depth chart at the catching position."
Furthermore, with utility infielder Jack Hannahan's health uncertainties after playing the 2013 season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder and having the injury repaired this offseason, another spot on Cincinnati's bench could open up.
If Hannahan is unable to start the season and with a shortage of infielders as it is, Soto would certainly have to be considered to make the Reds 25-man roster out of spring camp.