SALT RIVER AT TALKING STICK, ARIZ. — Neftali Soto probably sees Joey Votto in his dreams and wonders, “What am I going to do? Where am I going to play?”
Maybe he should change jobs. Soccer? Football? Rollerblading?
Soto, you see, is a first baseman in the Cincinnati Reds organization, a doggone good one, a top prospect.
But the Reds have a first baseman, a guy who is signed for the next 12 years for something like $275 million. Soto could bat 1.000 this spring and he’d still be without a job in the Reds’ dugout.
Amazingly, rather than pout and fret and say, “I wish they’d trade me,” Soto takes it like a man and does what he can do to impress the team. He can do nothing about Votto.
He impressed during the first exhibition game this spring, coming off the bench to get four hits — only the third Reds player in the last seven years to get four hits in a spring training game.
“I’ve been working a lot and that’s all I can do,” said the 24-year-old from Mantai, Puerto Rico. “I’m just trying to do my job. I’m on the 40-man roster and I’ll do whatever I can do here and we’ll see what happens.”
What probably will happen is that Soto will be playing first base at Class AAA Louisville, where he was last year for 122 games. “You never know what might happen in baseball. I could end up with another team or play another position.”
Notice he didn’t say he might beat out Votto. But another position is a possibility because he played a lot of third base in 2008 at Class A Dayton.
“They’ve started giving me some ground balls at third base again this year,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. And I played one game in right field last year in Louisville. I’m definitely down with changing my position. I even played some shortstop in Dayton for a while.”
Both Louisville and Soto wobbled out of the gate last season — the Bats losing games and Soto losing points off his batting average.
Soto said nobody was hitting and everybody on the team tried to pick up the slack and, in his case, it fouled up his swing.
“I heard that early last year he got into trouble by trying to pull the ball,” said manager Dusty Baker. “His second half was good because he got back to being himself, hitting the ball the opposite way. I see people try to change kids all the time, try to change them from hitting the ball the opposite way to be a pull hitter. I can teach you to pull, but it’s hard to teach you to hit the opposite way.
“He has some pop in that bat and has a pretty good idea of what he is doing,” Baker added. “Anybody who hits the ball the opposite way — for him to right center — is usually going to hit. And he can hit the ball out of the ballpark to right center. He is kind of like Joey in that he can hit the ball the opposite way and hit it out. And if you do that, you’re going to hit.”
Baker sees no reason why the 6-1, 215-pound Soto can’t save his Cincinnati career by changing positions.
“He came up a third baseman, then really improved as a first baseman,” said Baker. “Those two positions are mirror images, plus he has a good throwing arm. Oh, yeah, he could play third base.”
Soto, playing first base for Class AA Carolina in 2011, hit .272 with a league-leading 30 home runs and 76 RBI. Even though he wasn’t himself the first half of last year, he led the Bats in RBI with 59 and total bases (186) and his 14 home runs were second most on the team, despite a .245 average in 122 games.
“We all started slow and I had some lower back problems,” said Soto. “But it’s a new year and we’ll see what happens. It was my first year in Triple A and now I know more, I’m used to it.”
But will he ever get used to playing the same position as Joey Votto? Would anybody?