| The Detroit News
Detroit — This little anecdote from the recently completed Dominican Winter League finals will warm the heart of manager AJ Hinch.
The championship game was Monday. Tigers left-hander Gregory Soto, pitching for Aguilas Cibaenas, already had pitched three scoreless innings in the playoffs. But before the final game, he approached Aguilas manager Felix Fermin.
“Our bullpen was gassed,” Soto said in a Zoom call Thursday through Tigers interpreter Carlos Guillen. “But I was in good condition to throw. I just talked to the manager and told him, ‘If you need me to go more than one inning, I’ll be there for you.’
“I wanted to get that ring.”
Fermin gladly took him up on the offer. Soto pitched the seventh and eighth innings, allowing only a solo home run to Kelvin Gutierrez, and Aguila celebrated the Dominican championship with a 7-4 win over Gigantes del Cibao.
“It was really a nice experience,” Soto said. “It’s something I’ve been working toward my whole career and finally we fulfilled this dream.”
Hinch has made it clear he wants all the pitchers in his bullpen to be ready to pitch multiple innings this season. Soto, who was a starter as recently as 2019, has no problem with that, though he made no secret that his sights are set on a high-leverage role.
“I haven’t talked to anyone about it, but it is something that’s on my mind,” Soto said of possibly fighting for a chance to close games in 2021. “I can’t hide that. But what I’ve got to do is be ready to compete for whatever situation they want me to pitch in. If they mention anything about me being the closer, I’m ready — even more ready than I was last year.”
Right-hander Bryan Garcia finished last season as the Tigers’ closer. Soto, who struck out 29 in 23 innings, working mostly in the seventh and eighth innings, did have two saves in three opportunities last year.
“They are going to make the decision, they’re the ones that call the shots,” Soto said. “If they trust I can do the job, I will take it and I will give you 100% of myself. But my mindset is to fulfill any requirement they have for me. I will pitch in any inning they want me to pitch.”
Soto, entering his age-26 season, seems on the cusp of a major breakout year. He averages 97 mph on his sinker, which ranks in the upper four percent in baseball (per Statcast). The spin rate on that pitch (2,424 rpms) ranks in the upper 18%.
But it is his slider that he thinks can be the difference-maker. Although he only used it 20% of the time last year, hitters were 1 for 18 with 13 strikeouts against it. The pitch was swung at and missed 61% of the time.
“I focused on throwing my slider more (in winter ball),” Soto said. “I want to be confident and have the trust to throw it in any inning, any pitch count, any situation. I need to keep myself aware that I can use the slider anytime I want. I consider it to be very good — but I don’t want to brag about it.
“It’s just a matter of confidence and trust.”
He has exchanged text messages with new pitching coach Chris Fetter, but so far it’s been nothing more than, “Hello, excited to work with you.” Former pitching coach Rick Anderson convinced Soto to simplify and take a lot of the movement out of his delivery, which helped him harness his command.
“I am keeping the same mechanics,” Soto said. “It’s just trying not to overdo anything and stay in control. When I’ve done that, I’ve gotten good results.”
It will be interesting to see if Fetter tries to get Soto to use the four-seam fastball more. Both his sinker and slider play to the bottom of the strike zone. A 97-mph four-seam, with Soto’s typical life, would figure to play well up in the zone.
“I have learned to trust myself,” said Soto, who pitched 10 total innings this winter and will not play in the Caribbean World Series. “Trust my stuff. People said all the time that I had talent. It was just a matter of believing it myself and trying to focus on that.”
Last year, Jeimer Candelario’s winter ball team won the Dominican championship and he talked about how that experience, focusing solely winning games and not personal results, was transformative for him. He was able to take it into what became his breakout season in 2020.
Soto feels the same way.
“That’s definitely something I can put into practice myself,” he said. “Those are all positive things and we’ve got to take advantage of that. Everything I’ve learned in the Dominican League, I want to keep it up, keep it going into spring training.
“I’m not changing my mindset. I am just keeping my mind focused on winning.”