The Pittsburgh Pirates signed a large group of international players on July 2, 2016, which was the first day of the new signing period. Their biggest acquisition of that signing period wouldn’t happen until much later, when Jean Eusebio signed for nearly 30% of their entire bonus pool. In that large group from the first day, there was one player who really stood out for all of the wrong reasons when looking at their new players.
Outfielder Emison Soto was the oldest player in that first day group, turning 20 years old on April 1, 2016. At 5’7″, 167 pounds, he is very small for a baseball player. He also received a $10,000 bonus, which is the smallest international bonus that we have uncovered since both Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel signed for less than $10,000 combined out of India back in 2008. There have likely been fillers who received less over the years, but many bonus totals under six figures don’t get announced. When all you have to go on with some players is a signing bonus and details like their age and size, Soto wasn’t a player to get excited about.
So why would a player who is undersized, older than your normal signing and one who received a very low bonus, be of interest to the average fan? It’s because he has a great background, he has dedication to get better, and he received some high praise from those who saw him play in the Dominican.
Emison Soto was born on April 1, 1996 in San Francisco, Venezuela. His father was playing baseball at that time in the Mexican league. The elder Emison Soto was originally signed by the Boston Red Sox and spent his first four seasons of pro ball in their system, making it up to High-A ball. He played a total of 20 years before retiring as a player, seeing time in Mexico, Italy and in independent ball in the United States along the way.
This article actually got a lot more interesting after I was done interviewing Soto and innocently asked about his off-season plans. He said he was training in Venezuela this winter with his dad and his brother…Elias Diaz. I’ve talked to him a few times before we got together for this article and this was the first he mentioned that fact. Needless to say, it helps to know someone in the baseball world, but as you will see, Soto earned his place with the Pirates on his own.
You would assume that the younger Emison wanted to emulate his father or brother from an early age, but that wasn’t at all true. He didn’t start playing baseball until he was 14 years old, which was after his dad was already out of pro ball and two years after his brother signed with the Pirates. Soto remembered vividly how he was finally hooked on baseball.
“It was hard because everybody knew how to play and I was just there that day, but something happened inside of me when I caught the first fly ball and when I stood in the batting box, I was like wow,” Soto said. “This is my business, I was a young kid just thinking to have fun but I fell in love.”
Soto fell in love with the game the first time he played it, at an age most kids in Venezuela are first getting seriously scouted. Looking back on it though, it’s amazing he got hooked that day because he struck out three times. Soto was well behind everyone in skill, but he called his father right after the game and told him he wanted to play baseball.
“I just said to him that I have to get better and I gotta practice,” Soto recollected. “I wanted to be the best because I liked it so much.”
So his journey started from there. It was not an easy road to go from someone with no baseball experience at age 14, to someone who signed a pro contract six years later.
It didn’t take him long to catch up to the other players because he was a gifted athlete. He just needed experience playing the game. Soto said by age 15, he was selected to play at academies and in tournaments. He got his own attention by making his presence known.
“I didn’t even know what the selection meant, I just went to play and gave everything I got for some weeks,” Soto said, before talking about how he stood out. “Everybody was having fun with the little guy because he’s fast and he steals all the bases and is always screaming in the outfield.”
Looking over old photos of Soto, you see all of the tryouts he went through. He has pictures of himself in the jerseys of the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins, as well as numerous other local teams. It was while he was at one of those academies that his road to a pro contract took a new path. Someone who really liked the way Soto played thought it would be better for him to go to the United States, where he would have a better opportunity to sign. So he headed to the U.S.
“Everything began to take more importance and I had responsibility while being a young boy,” Soto said. “But it was both the love and the passion that I felt and still feel for this sport that everything had to do well.”
The trip to the U.S. didn’t work out as planned, but here is where you really see his dedication to the game at a young age.
“I spent almost three years in the United States and I did many tryouts,” he said. “They looked at me as too little, but having very good tools, so my coaches told me to keep working.”
Those three years of tryouts and practicing to get better would help him to where he is now, so something good did come from it, but that didn’t happen until he returned to Venezuela. Soto realized that while the experience didn’t pay off with a contract while he was in the U.S., it was still a necessary part of the process.
“I spent all that time without getting anything, but I got to be much better in what I love to do,” Soto said. “That is to play baseball and to know what it is to play baseball”
Soto returned to Venezuela after he got a student scholarship, but a paperwork error led to him being unable to get a student visa. So he was back in Venezuela at age 18 and his chances of signing a pro deal seemed dim at that point. As he said at the time, he was alone and didn’t have school or work, so he had no chance to sign. He was still dedicated though and the low point served as motivation to work harder and continue to train. He would catch a break in 2015.
At age 19, Soto was selected to represent Venezuela in the Latin American championships, which was followed by the World Championships, which were played in South Carolina. Those tournaments got him noticed, but things were not easy at the time. His signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates couldn’t have come at a better time. Soto noted that while he “continued to train hard and trust God”, there were days where he went without food and his mother was ill at the time.
The Pirates saw him at tryouts five different times before they finally agreed to sign him. It’s not surprising that after such a long journey, where kids four years younger than him are signing every year, Soto still talks about the day he signed as if it just happened to him.
“A scout of the Pirates was interested in me,” he said. “I went to see him like five times until he called his boss to see me. Thank God, my work, dedication and discipline, thanks to the scout and his boss who trusted and believed in my work, I am now a professional player with the Pittsburgh Pirates.”
Signing Is Just the Start
Soto got the easy part of pro ball out of the way, signing that deal, though it was obviously not an easy process for him. Being an older player when he signed, the Pirates are a good place for him due to recent history. He has to look no further than Edgar Santana, who signed at 22 years old and made the majors by age 25. Santana didn’t begin playing baseball until he was 19 years old. The Pirates have also signed players recently at 20+ years old who have moved quickly through the system like Yeudy Garcia.
Soto’s time in the system started with him playing in the Tricky League last summer. That’s a league that goes on at the same time as the Dominican Summer League, but it’s for players signed in July and also players rehabbing before they get back into regular games. We don’t get stats from that league, but I did get a report from two players there last year and they both mentioned how well Soto played. That was without me bringing up his name, so I made a note of it and moved on.
The next stop for Soto was the Dominican version of the Fall Instructional League, which starts in October and goes on for six weeks. Just like with the Tricky League, that’s the normal step for July 2nd players. That group of players actually gets in a lot of games in the Dominican before we ever seen their name in the box score. Their next move is Spring Training, which begins in April and goes until the DSL season starts. That was another point where people mentioned to me about how well Soto played, although this time I brought his name up to check his progression.
When he finally got a chance to play in games that count, Soto’s most impressive part of his game was his patience at the plate. At 5’7″ in a league where guys are working on fastball control, it’s no surprise that Soto was able to draw his share of walks. He did it without striking out though. In fact, he was one of the hardest players in the entire league to strike out. In 194 plate appearance, he struck out just 13 times. That helped him to a .438 OBP, which was the fifth best in the entire DSL and the best on the Pirates. He also improved as the season went along, putting up solid stats in each of his first two months before finishing with a .361/.510/.528 slash line in August.
Soto played all three outfield positions in the DSL. He handled 99 chances without an error and picked up five assists, which led the Pirates. Along with that excellent plate patience and ability to get on base, his defense is another tool that should help him move up the system.
While Soto didn’t have the best results on the bases, it’s an area of his game that should get better as he gets more experience. He went 14-for-25 in stolen bases. That should be his main focus as he continues to progress. As a player who showed he can get on base, he needs to do a better job of taking extra bases. It’s unlikely that Soto will ever hit for much power at his size. His approach at the plate is also geared towards getting on base. He had just eight extra-base hits this season, so using his speed to take extra bases will be important for his future value.
His Return to the United States
That learning part of his game continued after the DSL season, as he took that next step in his career. As a DSL player, the main goal is finding out on the last day of the season that you got an invite to the Fall Instructional League in Bradenton at Pirate City. Soto got that invite in his first year, which is always a good sign. He used those four weeks to improve his game as best he could and make this trip to the United States much better than his first trip.
“I found out things I did not know, but that were very teachable for the mental side and development of our abilities,” Soto said. “I feel that only one month of training and games in the instructional league have made me grow up in a great way as a person and a player.”
He then took those things he learned and applied them into the game side of things. The extra practice with different coaches translated to what he felt was a successful Fall Instructional League. The mental and physical side became easier, but his experience there was so much more than that in his mind.
“My experience in Pirates City was amazing, something that I wanted with all my heart and for which I worked so hard to get it, so I enjoyed it and took full advantage of it,” Soto said, before explaining what else he took from his time in Bradenton. “The culture, discipline, the way of working, the creativeness, were so many things that impacted and filled me with the desire to be better everyday.”
Soto isn’t going to be a player who instantly rises to big prospect status in the system, even if he has success early. He’s a long way from that point and it’s a tough uphill climb. He has a great story though and the odds are stacked against him, so that makes him easier for fans to get behind. At least from talking to him, I know that the dedication and desire to get better are there to succeed. From talking to others who have seen him play regularly, the tools are there as well. Now he just needs to continue to prove everyone wrong.