In the off-season between 2008 and 2009, Geovany Soto was riding high. The Chicago Cubs catcher had just won the National League Rookie of the Year award, having socked 23 home runs and posted an .868 OPS in his first full season of Major League work.
Perhaps in retrospect, the young backstop rode a little too high. He came to camp in poor shape, and admitted during the season to a positive test for marijuana during the World Baseball Classic.
Impeded by those distractions, Soto fell into a dizzying sophomore slump in 2009. He hit just .218/.321/.381, and his home-run tally collapsed to a mere 11.
More worrisome still, Soto found himself on the disabled list for over a month, and played just 102 games. After his iron-man performance (141 games played) in 2008, the combined losses in production and playing time hurt Chicago badly.
With 2009 now safely in the rear-view mirror, however, we can begin to formulate conjecture about Soto's chances to rebound in 2010.
For an offense that went from the best in the National League two years ago to tenth-best in 2009, Soto could be a key contributor to a team-wide revival.
Interestingly, despite his discouraging season, there is much to like about Soto's prognostication profile for 2010. First of all, he will be 27 years old.
Catchers, as a general rule, peak later and decline faster than do other position players. Given those premises, Soto seems well-positioned to play up to his full potential next year.
Soto also has a batting profile that defies explanation, given to the results he attained. Compared with his breakout 2008 campaign.
Soto walked more and struck out less in 2009. He continued to rake against even the league's best fastballs, a skill that will be better rewarded if he is better protected next season.
Soto's fly ball rate stayed relatively constant, and he continued to deftly avoid hitting infield pop-ups.
The only glaring problem was that three percent of his overall batted balls in play that had been line drives in 2008, became ground balls in 2009. With Soto slowed by his own lack of conditioning, that minor problem became a serious detriment to his performance.
Everyone seems to agree that Soto will bounce back next season. Venerated analyst Bill James puts Soto in the .830 range for OPS, a figure Chicago would gladly take from a man as worthy as any of their open fifth batting order position.
Soto's trip to the disabled list last July and August stemmed from an oblique injury. Soto battled oblique problems in April as well, and may have tried to play through the injury even as it inhibited him throughout the year.
If that is the case, and especially if Soto returns more fit and able to avoid those types of injuries, he will do well in 2010. Here are my projections:
- 130 games
- 475 plate appearances
- .273/.364/.480 AVG/OBP/SLG
- 21 HR
If he is to re-establish himself as a positive presence in Chicago's lineup, however, he had better prepare to do so in less playing time than he saw during his excellent rookie showing.
Koyie Hill, Chicago's switch-hitting backup, won more and more playing time as the season progressed, without regard to Soto's health.
While anemic at the plate, Hill posted a better caught stealing percentage (by a wide margin) than did Soto behind the dish.
Hill also deterred the running game; teams ran 20 percent less often on him. Cubs pitchers threw fewer wild pitches and passed balls, and had an ERA three full tenths of a run better, with Hill catching.
If Cubs manager Lou Piniella is wise, he will not let that outstanding defensive showing outweigh what could be a potent bat in an otherwise middle-of-the-pack batting order.
To be safe, however, Soto had better come to Spring Training in shape, and earn the job outright.
This is the second in what will be a long series of in-depth profiles for each 2010 Chicago Cub. Check out others, some recently published and some on the way soon!