Three years ago, in the fall of 2011, then High-A Potomac first baseman Steven Souza was exchanging phone calls with major college football coaches around the country; he had quit baseball. Now, In the wake of an injury to outfielder Nate McLouth, the Washington Nationals have promoted Souza to the majors.
Souza, now 25 and an outfielder, had been raking with Triple-A Syracuse. He owned a .354/.435/.601 line, pacing the International League in all three categories, and amassed 18 home runs and 24 stolen bases – both totals tied for third highest in the circuit. Souza was in fact building on prior success; he hit .300/.396/.557 in 77 games for Double-A Harrisburg last season. The lofty play has garnered him the full attention of scouts and MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo ranked him as the Nationals 5th best prospect long month.
It’s been a jagged climb for the 2007 third round pick; back in October of 2011, he looked as done as most any player in the minor leagues.
The year prior, Souza’s season had ended in July with a 50 game suspension for taking a banned stimulant. He returned the following April, but didn’t look the same. The Nationals had taken him from his native third base and given him a first baseman’s mitt, appalled by his .866 professional fielding percentage at the hot corner. The season slumped on; Souza began to struggle. He hit .224 with a .295 on base percentage after June 1. He had a .176 and but two extra base hits – both doubles – in August alone. By the end of the year, he owned a .228/.360/.367 line. He walked some, but struck out more: 131 whiffs in 122 games.
Worse, The failures began to wear on Souza. Before Potomac’s final playoff game that year, manager Matt Lecroy benched him for a violation of team policy. As Souza explained to James Wagner of the Washington Post, this led to a minor altercation as Souza sulked and argued. After the game the then 22 year old informed Washington’s farm director, Doug Harris, that he was giving up
Ironically enough, Souza credits his decision to leave the game – one taken in an angry stupor – with salvaging his career.
“This is weird to say, but I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me.” He told Wagner, “I need to make a change in my life not just baseball-wise, but my outlook on life.”
Souza soon re-joined the Nationals, apologized to his manager, and it’s been an upward ascent ever since.
Washington promptly moved him to the outfield and he posted a .938 OPS between Potomac and Class-A Hagerstown in 2012. Last year, it was a .944 OPS despite injury, and of course, there is the sheer thrashing, the 1.036 OPS, that has been this season.
But nothing is ever so rosy.
Souza is already 25, old for a prospect, and Triple-A success at an advanced age does not necessarily translate into the type of big league performance one might expect.
Last season, outfielder/first baseman Tyler Moore posted a .979 OPS in 45 games for Syracuse, a 1.027 mark in 29 games the year before. He did have a strong 156 at bat showing in the majors at 2012, but his MLB stat line is .219/.271/.354 since then. Not a perfect comparison – Moore was never the prospect or type of player Souza is – but a word of caution.
This will actually be Souza’s second big league stint this season. His first one ended after just one single in eight at bats.