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November 12, 2008

On the Beat

Rookies of the Year

by John Perrotto

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In this day of non-stop news and analysis on prospects coming up through the minor leagues, very few players reach the majors by flying under the radar. Cubs catcher Geovany Soto happens to be one of those exceptions; he had not been considered among the top prospects in baseball until 2007, when he hit .353/.424/.652 in 449 plate appearances in his third season at Triple-A Iowa and won the Most Valuable Player award in the Pacific Coast League. He backed that up this year by hitting .285/.364/.504 with 23 home runs and a .288 EqA in 563 plate appearances for the Cubs. Soto was a nearly unanimous pick by the Baseball Writers Association of America as the NL Rookie of the Year this week, and was the first-place choice by 31 of the 32 voters. Reds first baseman Joey Votto was the only other rookie to garner a first-place vote, and somehow Reds right-hander Edinson Volquez received three second-place votes despite not being a rookie.

So how did Soto suddenly become a hot prospect and a Rookie of the Year? "Hard work, that's basically it," Soto said. "I knew I had to do some things to be a major leaguer." Soto lost 30 pounds prior to the 2007 season, and less weight meant greater production with the bat and more mobility behind the plate. "I worked really hard to take the weight off and I've worked hard to keep it off," Soto said. "It's tough for me. I enjoy eating! I could eat pasta every day, but I know that I have to be in top shape to get through a 162-game schedule and play up to the best of my ability. I feel better than I ever have, and I stayed strong all season. I felt as good at the end of the year as I did at the beginning."

While Soto's offensive numbers stood out, his defense was also above average for a rookie catcher. He had a FRAA of +5 this season, helping the Cubs allow just 4.2 runs a game, the second-best mark in the NL. Soto thanks veteran backup catcher Henry Blanco for helping him to make the adjustment to a full-time major league catcher. "Henry has so much knowledge of the game and he has always been willing to share everything he knows about baseball," Soto said. "I think everyone who knows Henry knows he's going to be a manager some day, one of the best managers in the game. He taught me how important it is to always be prepared every day. It's important to know everything about everyone on the pitching staff, both starters and relievers, and be in tune with how they are pitching and what they are feeling. He also told me how important it is to know the opposing pitchers and have a good idea of what they are going to do when I step in the batter's box. I spent a lot of time in the video room this year, watching our guys and pitchers from other teams, and a lot of time meeting with our pitchers. I felt like I had a pretty good handle on things as the season went on, and I feel even more confident about how I will do next season."

Though Soto had spent the previous three Septembers with the Cubs, they seemed to be taking a bit of a gamble by naming him as their starting catcher this past season. However, manager Lou Piniella had faith in Soto, which is why the Cubs did not attempt to re-sign veteran Jason Kendall as a free agent after the 2007 season. "The young man has done a really nice job for us this season," Piniella said of Soto late in the season. "He's really handled the pitching staff well, as well as you could expect a rookie catcher to work with a staff, and he's been a very good offensive player. You really couldn't ask for anything more."

The only downside to Soto's rookie season was that the Cubs were swept by the Dodgers in the National League Division Series, the second straight year that they were knocked out of the playoffs in three games after having been swept by the Diamondbacks in 2007. "It was a disappointing way to end the season, because it seemed like nothing went our way that whole series," Soto said. "It's hard to understand what happened. The Dodgers have a good team, but I don't think they had a better team than us. It just seemed like every time they needed a big hit, they got it, and we never got the big hit. That's just the way baseball goes sometimes, but it was definitely tough to take. I think it makes me and everyone want to get back to the playoffs next year and do better."

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While it may have taken Soto a longer time than most to be recognized as a prospect, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria was pegged as a star in the making from the time Tampa Bay picked him third overall in the 2006 first-year player draft out of Cal State Fullerton. The 23-year-old Longoria admits that he did not expect quite such a rapid rise to major league stardom, however. He was the unanimous choice as AL Rookie of the Year this week, named on all 32 ballots after hitting .272/.343/.531 with 27 home runs and a .302 EqA in 508 plate appearances. "This is where as a baseball player I wanted to be, but if I told you two years ago I knew I'd be in this situation, I'd be lying," said Longoria.

Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said during his team's World Series loss to the Phillies last month that Longoria's potential is practically limitless. "It looks like he owns that territory around third base," Pena said. "At the same time, he is very appreciative and respectful of the opportunity to play in the big leagues. He really has a perfect combination of skills as a player and approach as a person. The sky is the limit for him. He can be as good as you could possibly imagine and it wouldn't be a surprise. The best news is we have a lot of Evan Longoria to watch in the future."

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A sure sign that the Mariners are likely to begin a youth movement under new general manager Jack Zduriencik is that none of the seven managerial candidates he will interview have ever managed in the major leagues: Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills, Red Sox third-base coach DeMarlo Hale, Diamondbacks third-base coach Chip Hale, White Sox bench coach Joey Cora, Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo, Athletics bench coach Dan Wakamatsu, and Randy Ready, the manager of the Padres' Triple-A Las Vegas farm club.

It had been generally assumed that former Brewers manager Ned Yost, former Mets manager Willie Randolph, former Rangers and Mets manager Bobby Valentine, and former Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon were high on Zduriecik's list, but th new GM is instead interested in bringing in a fresh face. "Every great manager in the big leagues got his start somewhere," Zduriencik said. "The one thing all these guys have in common is they have been part of winning organizations."

Mills has rarely received consideration for a big-league manager's job, despite being the coach closest to Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who has won two World Series in five years on the job. Mills believes that working for Francona has made him ready to take on the challenge of managing the Mariners, who lost 101 games last season. "Terry does a great job," Mills told the Seattle Times. "Anybody that's on Terry's staff is able to glean from Terry how prepared he is and how he handled his people. How he handles his players is very important to the success we've had in Boston."

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: While the Cubs hope to re-sign right-hander Ryan Dempster quickly, they first want to bring a resolution to trade talks with the Padres for right-hander Jake Peavy in order to get a better handle on how much room they'll have in their payroll. ... It's unlikely that the Phillies will be offering long-term contracts to buy out the arbitration eligibility of left-hander Cole Hamels and first baseman Ryan Howard this winter. ... The Diamondbacks have interest in trading for Cardinals second baseman Adam Kennedy. ... The Indians could be the destination for all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman now that the Padres have decided to pull their offer to re-sign the free agent.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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