Down on the Farm: Souza’s Patience Pays Off
by Mike Feigen
November 1 was a significant day in the history of the Washington Nationals. Matt Williams was welcomed to Nationals Park and introduced as the club’s fifth manager since baseball returned to The District. It was a day of celebration.
But earlier that morning, the Nationals made a less heralded move – one that signaled redemption for a young player who hopes to play for Williams in the near future.
Steven Souza, Jr., drafted by the Nationals in June of 2007 – the 100th-overall player selected and the sixth pick in the first three rounds by Washington – was added to the 40-man roster. Two of the players taken before him, Ross Detwiler (sixth overall) and Jordan Zimmermann (67th overall) are already household names in D.C., while Souza’s path to the Majors remains a work in progress.
Unlike the aforementioned college pitchers, Souza, an outfielder, came to the Nationals straight from the prep ranks. He bypassed a college scholarship to sign out of Cascade High School in Everett, Wash., a program that had sent former third-round pick Grady Sizemore to the big leagues just a few years earlier. Upon signing, Souza headed across the country to Viera, Fla., where he hit four home runs and added four stolen bases in 44 games for the Gulf Coast League (Rookie) Nationals.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound right-handed hitter split time between Short Season-A Vermont and Class-A Hagerstown in 2008, then repeated at Hagerstown in 2009 and 2010, hitting a combined .235 with 15 home runs and 43 stolen bases in 207 games with the Suns. At the age of 22, after being sidelined for 50 games, he advanced to High-A Potomac, where he hit .228 but improved his on-base percentage – posting a .360 mark – while adding 11 homers and 25 steals.
At that point, with five seasons of professional baseball under his belt, the young outfielder found himself at a crossroads.
The setbacks had been difficult, the progression through the Nationals system had been slow, and he’d made his own mistakes to compound the situation. Souza contemplated walking away from his dream.
Souza will join his Mesa Solar Sox teammates in the quest for an Arizona Fall League Championship on Saturday (MLB Network, 3 p.m. ET). It’s been two years since he reconsidered his place in the game, and in that time he has developed into a legitimate five-tool threat. Most recently, he’s become one of the top performers in the prospect-rich AFL circuit – all while playing less than most of his AFL counterparts.
Designated a “taxi squad” player, restricted to two games per week, Souza has maximized his opportunities in limited at-bats. While he wants to play every day, Souza said he’s learned that any chance to play is a blessing.
“Playing on the taxi squad has taught me a lot about coming off the bench,” Souza said. “You have to take advantage of every opportunity.”
Souza hit .357/.426/.476 with eight runs, eight RBI and 10 stolen bases this fall, while hitting safely in 10 of his 11 games for the AFL East Division Champion Solar Sox. Twice he stole three bases in a game, showing off his explosive speed.
“As a bigger guy, speed is what separates me from some other bigger guys,” Souza explained. “I’ve worked a lot on agility and footwork. I owe everything to (Nationals first base coach) Tony Tarasco. He’s taught me everything I know about baserunning, and it’s translated well on the field.”
Souza’s AFL performance is coming on the heels of an All-Star showing at Double-A Harrisburg in 2013, where he hit .300/.396/.557 with 39 extra-base hits and 20 stolen bases in just 77 games. In 2012, with renewed enthusiasm for the game, Souza compiled an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .938 with 23 home runs and 14 stolen bases across two levels.
The transformation has been striking; after hitting no better than .237 at any of his primary stops in his first five years, Souza has hit no worse than .290 in the two seasons since.
Doug Harris, Washington’s Director of Player Development, has been thrilled to see Souza’s career blossom.
“Steven has really come into his own over the last two years,” Harris said. “He has a broad skill set with the ability to impact a game in a variety of ways. Not only has he performed at a high level during that span, but also exhibited many intangibles that have earned him a 40-man roster spot.”
For Souza, being added to the Nationals 40-man roster was a validation for all of the hard work he put in to revive his career.
“I was really honored and humbled,” Souza said of receiving the call from the Nationals. “I’m thankful to be in such a great organization.”
When offered a chance to look ahead, Souza was reluctant to set goals, saying instead that he would let his faith guide him. He made it clear, however, that he’d love to have an opportunity to play at Nationals Park in the near future.
“Honestly, if Matt Williams wants me to come in and help the team win, I’ll do that in any way I can,” he said. “If I don’t make it this year, I’ll work hard and play wherever they send me. I just want to contribute somehow – either to a win or two, or winning a championship. I’d be happy to fit in somewhere and just fade into the background.”
Mesa experienced a symmetrical season, racing out to a 7-0 record (plus one tie), dropping 11 of 17 games in the middle of the year, and then rallying to win its final six contests to finish with a 19-11 record. The furious finish was just enough to edge Salt River for the East Division title by a half game, as the Rafters ended their year with seven consecutive wins.
Saturday’s AFL Championship Game will be broadcast live on MLB Network at 3 p.m. ET, with the Solar Sox taking on the West Division Champion Surprise Saguaros.