Humbled Soto plans to shape up in tandem with Dempster
Often times you’ve got to be brought down to rise back up again.
Welcome again to the major leagues, Geovany Soto.
The 2008 National League rookie of the year couldn’t not have dropped as low as he found himself a year later in a classic case of baseball’s sophomore jinx. First he put on weight, the puffiness attributed to sitting on the bench during the World Baseball Classic — although it’s likely the catcher was not in great shape to begin with. Two months later came the revelation Soto tested positive for marijuana at the WBC, and thus was banned from international competition the next two years. All the while he wallowed in an endless slump for the Cubs, his 23-homer, 86-RBI, .285 rookie season seemingly a decade back when he finished 2009 with 11 homers, 47 RBIs and a paltry .218. He just never got going.
“It should,” Soto said of the torrent of criticism serving as a burr on his backside. “I know what’s going on. I wasn’t producing like I should. They’re going to take their measures and get me going. My thinking process is I’m going to go back home, take two weeks off, start training and go after it harder.”
Talk is cheap, but Soto said he’s going to do something about being called a fatso and a bust-out. He plans to leave the balmy weather of Puerto Rico to come to Chicago during the coldest time of the year and hit the gym with batterymate Ryan Dempster, the Cubs’ biggest workout fiend.
“I’m coming up in Chicago for two weeks in January to train with Dempster,” he said. “We’ve found a trainer. I asked him and he said, come up and I’ll set you up with your family. I’m coming for some revenge.”
Now that’s asking for punishment. Motivated to get in the best shape of his life when he converted from a struggling closer to a 17-game-winning starter, Dempster took runs up and down Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz., during spring training. He’d take a fellow pitcher like Rich Hill or Neal Cotts on four-mile runs through the Wrigleyville neighborhood around the ballpark before batting practice. Formerly the clown prince of the Cubs, the wannabe-standup comic took on a serious role to train like a maniac. Dempster hardly had time anymore for pre-game clubhouse cutups and cameo comedy routines.
The hope here is that he doesn’t take Soto on any outdoor jogs lest they slip on some ice or fall into a snowbank. Soto has spent some time living in New York, but he’s never experienced Chicago at its winter worst, other than to zip in and out of town at the Cubs Convention.
Dempster should take him into a workout facility where they turn up the heat so Soto really can sweat. If the chastened, fallen star can’t pick up some new conditioning routines that he can use all the time from Dempster, then he’d be deaf to the world.
“Basically, I still feel I can play here with the best of them,” Soto said. “I can be good at this level. For me, I learned not every year was the same. Last year it was all happiness. Now I saw the other side of the coin. Mainly I learned this game will humble you and you have to keep working hard, keep grinding it out.”
We won’t rip Soto for his positive drug test at the WBC. Younger people will fall off the wagon, no matter how much they try otherwise. The conditioning is the big issue here. Soto had worked to get himself in shape to rise quickly from afterthought status in the Cubs farm system to most valuable player of the Pacific Coast League in 2007. He had such a high ceiling that as a raw rookie, manager Lou Piniella benched veteran Jason Kendall and installed Soto as starting catcher in September, 2007, where he stayed through the three-and-out playoff series against the Diamondbacks.
Soto represented a turnaround for the position player-challenged farm system, which rarely produced regulars for the lineup and has still not belched forth a 30-homer, 100-RBI type who produced for the Cubs since Billy Williams, almost a half century ago.
Soto may also have moved backward without the guidance of backup catcher Henry Blanco, fondly termed “Hank White” by Cubs fans and media. Blanco, savvy enough to already be a coach or even a manager, lockered next to Soto in 2008 before being let go after the season. They were nearly inseparable, playing cards together, talking baseball together. Blanco participated in some on-field instruction sessions for Soto conducted by coach Matt Sinatro, Piniella’s right-hand man and a former catcher himself.
Koyie Hill, this year’s backup, lockered halfway across the clubhouse from Soto. Too bad. Soto would have picked up on the idea of courage and fight from Hill, who almost lost his fingers in a home woodworking accident in the fall of 2007. Hill was back catching the following spring. In 2009, Hill caught 26 games in a row while Soto was on the disabled list at mid-season with a left oblique strain. He claimed he was none the worse for the wear. No wonder he’s one of the most admired men in the Cubs’ organization. More on Hill in a future post.
Soto should respond to all the positive influences around him. Talking to him since he broke in during 2007, I’ve detected that he’s savvy about baseball. He needs to just complete the growing-up process, and he’s lucky his teammates still have confidence in him.
“The way he plays the game, you can just see he’s a good player,” first baseman Derrek Lee said. “I don’t think this year is indicative of the player he is.”
One piece of advice for Soto, though. You can try to match Dempster step for step in January. But if he gets in his comic zone, do not attempt to go quip for quip. You’ll lose.