Is Soto more valuable to the Cubs in a trade?

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Is Soto more valuable to the Cubs in a trade?

HardballTalk's Matthew Pouliot continues his preseason projections heading into spring training with the Top 10 catchers.

The Cubs' Geovany Soto made the list at No. 8, coming in at a projected .799 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in 422 at-bats.

Buster Posey of the Giants heads up the list with an .878 OPS projection. Only he and Brian McCann of the Braves are projected for a better OPS than Soto in the National League.

Soto's OPS in 2011 was .721 in 421 at-bats, but that includes a low .310 OBP -- the lowest of his career -- and a .228 batting average contributed largely to that low total.

In 2010, Soto hit .280 with a .393 OBP and .497 SLG, good for an .890 OPS. By Pouliot's projections, that would put the Cubs backstop atop all catchers.

Pouliot's prediction brings about two questions, and neither are related to Soto's final numbers.

For one, who will make up those other 150 or so at-bats at the catcher position? Koyie Hill appeared in 46 games last year for the Cubs, putting up a horrible .545 OPS in 134 at-bats. But Hill is gone and the Cubs are left with three options right now -- Steve Clevenger, Welington Castillo and Jason Jaramillo.

Jaramillo is a veteran with significant MLB experience while Clevenger and Castillo are young up-and-comers. Will the new Cubs management team of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Dale Sveum be comfortable with Clevenger or Castillo taking the backup catcher role in 2012? Or will Jaramillo be the choice based on experience?

The other question is Soto's status with the team. His numbers will be there so long as he's on the field. Injuries are impossible to predict, but he very well could wind up in a different uniform by the time the season ends.

The 29-year-old catcher remains one of the Cubs' best trade chips and several contending teams could enlist in his services before the year is out.

Let's just assume for a second that Pouliot's projections will be exactly how things play out. Only two of the catchers ahead of Soto on the list played for playoff teams in 2011. Posey's return should make the Giants contenders once again and the Indians and Braves would not be huge surprises if they earn a postseason berth in 2012.

The Phillies, Brewers, Cardinals, Yankees and Rays do not have a catcher on this list. These five 2011 playoff teams all expect to contend for 2012 on some level. If the second Wild Card is added for each league this year, that will just create more challengers who could be looking for an upgrade at catcher.

With the Cubs in the midst of rebuilding and not expecting to contend in 2012, Soto may be more valuable to the long-term prospects of the team in a trade, rather than suiting up in the blue and red catcher's gear for 135 games.

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Miami Marlins on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com and the NBC Sports App.

Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 11:30 a.m., followed by first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies on the call. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Starting pitching matchup: Mike Montgomery (1-3, 2.26 ERA) vs. Edinson Volquez (3-8, 4.19 ERA)

Click here for more stats to make sure you’re ready for the action.

— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

MIAMI – Jon Lester dropped his head and wiped the sweat from his face. The Cubs ace didn’t jerk his neck and twist his body, hoping the swing and the sound somehow fooled him. The slow turnaround revealed the obvious – the 75-mph curveball out of his left hand flew over the left-field wall and nearly into the Clevelander bar billed as an adult playground. 

Lester gripped the next ball, stared out into the visual noise at Marlins Park and went to work late Saturday afternoon after J.T. Realmuto’s two-out, three-run homer in the first inning. This is the bulldog determination and tunnel vision that’s been the antidote to the big-market pressures at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and made Lester such a big-game pitcher.

“You really just have to lock it down,” Lester said after doing just that in a 5-3 win. “You have to try to figure out a way to pitch innings. That was one thing I learned at an early age in Boston with ‘Schill’ (Curt Schilling) and Josh (Beckett). It doesn’t matter. Now we start over. You have to take that mindset of ‘It’s back to zero’ and not keep looking at the scoreboard.”

From that Realmuto moment, Lester retired the next 13 hitters he faced, 15 of the next 16 and 18 of his last 20 at a time when the Cubs needed that performance to buy time for their young hitters, weather a series of injuries and survive a brutal schedule.

Lester believed enough in the coming waves of talent to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season, and got rewarded with his third World Series ring, continually impressed with this group’s poise and maturity.

The day after getting shut out for the sixth time this season, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. – four 24-and-under players – combined to go 7-for-15 with five RBI and four runs scored.

“It’s a test for everybody,” Lester said. “These guys are kind of getting broken in early. They’re going to figure it out and we’re going to go. Now it seems like our guys are really feeling comfortable at the plate. We’re having good at-bats, normal at-bats.

“The results will come. This is, obviously, a results-driven industry. But the plans – as far as on the mound and in the batter’s box – just look a lot smoother right now, a lot cleaner and hopefully we can just keep playing good baseball.”

[VIVID SEATS: Buy your Cubs tickets right here]

The Cubs are 38-36, a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and in position to win three consecutive series for the first time since April. Whether or not Lester (5-4, 3.83 ERA) returns to Little Havana for the All-Star Game, he is the bellwether for this rotation.  

“Jonny’s just got this thing going on right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He knows where the ball is going and he gets the high-number velocity when he wants to. He’s not just pitching at 92, 93, 94 (mph). It’s in his back pocket when he needs it. And he gets it with command when he wants it.

“As well as I’ve seen him pitch – I know he had a great run last year also – from a stuff perspective, command perspective, it’s as good as he can pitch.”

This $155 million investment will at some point become a sunk cost. The Cubs understand the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how desperately they need reinforcements. But almost 100 innings into this title defense, Lester feels like he’s just getting started. 

“I feel better now than I did in April and May, for sure,” Lester said. “I think bigger bodies just take a while sometimes. Some years are different than others. Some years you come out like gangbusters and you’re ready to go and the body feels fine. And other years it takes a while to get into that rhythm of pitching every five days again. This was one of those years.”