The call would come in occasionally from the minor leagues, from a kid catcher in Des Moines who wasn’t so much interested in job openings but rather in pocket-collecting a pointer or two.
To Cubs catcher Geovany Soto, then biding his time at Triple-A Iowa, phoning veteran Henry Blanco offered another creative avenue to improve his skills.
Surely Blanco would have the answers on how better to block those quirky pitches tailing away and in the dirt, or perhaps offer insight into motivational tactics designed to prop up a struggling pitcher. That’s all Soto wanted really—answers and nothing more.
“To be honest with you,” Soto was saying before baseball’s playoffs got under way, “I wouldn’t be doing the stuff I’m doing without him. He’s like my backbone.”
The Cubs probably could say the same now of Soto, the 2008 Baseball America Rookie of the Year.
The 25-year-old backstop crafted a remarkable freshman season in the majors as he steadied one of the game’s top pitching staffs while doubling as a fearsome weapon within the lineup.
That he held down the fort for a Cubs team that won the National League Central with an NL-best 97 victories and earned the respect of veteran manager Lou Piniella was all the more impressive.
“I don’t see anybody else that’s had the year or the impact that he’s had on a baseball team,” Piniella said. “The pitchers like throwing to him. They respect him. He does a real nice job of calling a baseball game.”
He’s Come A Long Way
Soto’s influence extended from the rotation to the bullpen and then to the offense.Consider:
• The Cubs’ top three pitchers in Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly finished a collective 48-21, 3.64, with Dempster threatening 20 wins in his first year after ceding the closer’s role after a three-year reign.
• He shepherded the bullpen through when veteran Kerry Wood wasn’t saving 34 games, as Soto calmed Carlos Marmol and second-half X-factor Jeff Samardzija, a rookie righthander just two years into his pro career.
• Offensively, he hit .285/.364/.504 with 23 home runs, 35 doubles and 86 RBIs, batting mostly in the Nos. 5, 6 and 7 spots in the order.
The surprise twist? Soto’s career path hardly led anyone to believe he would deliver like this.
Remember the awkward girl back in high school who seemed cute enough to ask for a twirl at the Friday night dance? And years later at the class reunion that girl has everybody asking, “Who is that!?”
Such has been Soto’s journey.
An 11th-round pick in 2001 out of a Puerto Rico military academy, Soto converted from the corner infield to catching in 2003 at high Class A Daytona.
At the time, the Cubs had not developed a catcher with staying power since Joe Girardi (1989) and Rick Wilkins (1991) and that June exhausted third- and fourth-round picks on college catchers Jake Fox and Tony Richie.
“Offensively,” Rangers farm director and former Cubs catching instructor Scott Servais said, “I’d be lying if I predicted he would hit with the power he has.”
“The ability to give you a quality at-bat with a guy on third and less than two outs (stood out),” Servais said. “He made contact and didn’t strike out a lot.”
Servais also noted Soto’s blocking and receiving skills and ability to call a game. They weren’t lost on others, either.
“He showed glimpses of his power but, like any young guy, he was never confident with his power,” said Bobby Dickerson, who was Soto’s manager at Double-A West Tenn in 2004. “He was always a very good player. He just never quite put it together like he has this year in the majors.”
Significant to Soto’s development were September callups in 2005-07, when he crossed paths with Blanco. “He’s been my mentor since day one. He’s always been helping me,” Soto said. “When I was in the minor leagues and he was up here, I called him, ‘What do you think about this situation?'”
It’s impressed Blanco.
“To me, he doesn’t look like a rookie,” Blanco said. “He acts like a mature guy and realizes what’s on his back. He has a lot of responsibility. I’m glad that he accepts that as a man, as a grown man, and keeps proving he is one of the best, one of the best in the league.”
From 2004-06, BA rated Soto at Nos. 14, 16 and 17 among Cubs prospects, but as his bat developed he jumped to No. 2.
Before a breakout 2007 at Triple-A Iowa—he hit .353/.424/.652 with 26 home runs—Soto slowly progressed. From 2003 to 2006, he never hit better than .272 or delivered more than nine home runs or drove in more than 48 runs in any season.
Along the way, Soto found confidence.
“I think I’m a little more aggressive in my defense and the mental part of it,” he said. “I try talking to the guys, talk to Kerry Wood. It’s good I can go up there and say, ‘Hey, we’re dealing with this situation.’ He’ll agree, or he’ll tell me no. I feel comfortable going out there and talking with the guys and trying to come up with the best plan for the game.”
Contributing: Bruce Miles, The Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Ill.