Mooney: Soto looking to take charge

Mooney: Soto looking to take charge
February 23, 2011, 1:07 am
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Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011
Posted 6:37 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Geovany Soto looked around the room and realized how much things had changed. Theres no Moises Alou, no Henry Blanco, no Sammy Sosa or his boom box.

At 28, Soto may feel a little older, but insists that hes in great physical shape. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder last September and is working out at Fitch Park without any restrictions.

The Cubs described it as a routine procedure, and Soto said it only shaved off a little bit of the bone, without touching any ligaments or muscles. That is part of the normal wear and tear on a homegrown catcher whos entering his 11th season in the organization.

With that comes status, and Soto expects to be a more vocal leader this season, a more visible presence in the clubhouse.

We need to pick it up, he said. Last year we had all kinds of problems. I dont have any problem with taking charge and telling anybody theyre slacking.

Soto does not exclude himself from that assessment. Hes been told how great he is after winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2008. Months later, he went through the embarrassment of a failed drug test at the World Baseball Classic. Last offseason he changed his diet and remade his body.

It paid off last year: Sotos .890 OPS was higher than any other major-league catcher with at least 300 at-bats. He hit .280 with 17 homers and 53 RBI in 105 games. Hes also drawn praise for how he handles a pitching staff, as someone who doesnt care if he goes 0-for-4 that day.

Soto was born in Puerto Rico, moved to New York as a young boy, and then moved back to San Juan before being chosen in the 11th round of the 2001 draft. He moves easily through the different groups in the clubhouse.

The fact that hes bilingual its like having a manager on the field, vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita said. Its another quality as a leader, (but) hes just a guy that people gravitate to.

Fleita has stressed the importance of learning English to younger catchers like Welington Castillo, who regularly consults with Soto. They ask Soto about little things, like whether or not they can wear a fleece to the workout. In meetings, bullpen sessions and two different languages, Soto goes between the coaches and pitchers, relaying their thoughts on mechanics.

Its a little bit difficult for us, the Latin players, Castillo said. (But) you got to adapt to this country. This is our dream and we got to play for it and fight for it.

If Mike Quade has one regret its getting his degree in business not Spanish from the University of New Orleans. He also managed Soto at Triple-A Iowa and watched the catcher develop up close.

Whether its Venezuela or Dominican, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Quade said, theres a mutual respect going around all over the place. (Sotos) huge in that and thats an evolving thing with him. It doesnt become a rah-rah thing or a guy thats teaching all the time. I always think that gets a little bit overplayed. You lead by example and you lead by experience.

It did not go unnoticed that the Cubs recently rewarded another homegrown player. They bought out Carlos Marmols first year of free agency with a three-year, 20 million deal. Soto got a huge raise to 3 million this year and is eligible for arbitration for two more seasons. He could be in line for an extension.

That sort of stuff (can) get your attention, Soto said. As a ballplayer, you know thats there. But you also need to come to the field every day and just worry about whatever you can control. You can control getting here early. You can control the hustle. You can control good attitude. Whatever plays out, plays out.

Maybe it ends like this: The next wave of Cubs standing around their lockers explaining what Soto meant to them.

It feels kind of good that Ive stuck around this (long), Soto said. Hopefully (its) for 20 more years.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.