That Geovany Soto started the first game of the National League Division Series for the Cubs shouldn't come as much of a surprise. He was, after all, named the Most Valuable Player in the Pacific Coast League this season, an honor that gives the rookie catcher a bit more credibility than your average September callup.
Chicago manager Lou Piniella said he was comfortable with Soto -- and why shouldn't he have been? The youngster has demonstrated that he's a force at the plate and more than competent behind it, leaving nothing left to prove at the Minor League level. Soto was so effective this season -- hitting .353 (second in the circuit) with 26 homers and a league-leading 109 RBIs for Iowa -- that he was tabbed as MiLB.com's Triple-A Offensive Player of the Year.
In addition, the 24-year-old committed only three errors in 512 chances behind the plate in 74 games for the I-Cubs. He also threw out 31 percent (19-of-61) of runners attempting to steal, the fourth-highest percentage in the PCL. Not bad for a converted third baseman who didn't go behind the plate until he signed with the Cubs as an 18-year-old in 2001.
"I've been in this organization for seven years and I think I've progressed every year," said Soto, who had three homers and six RBIs in 17 at-bats with Chicago during the regular season. "I've been doing better every year. I think I'm ready to play up here in the big leagues and I hope they give me a chance."
Getting that opportunity shouldn't be much of a problem based on how he performed this season, particularly under Piniella's scrutiny late in the year. Iowa pitching coach Mike Harkey worked closely with Soto all season and has noticed a big change in the Puerto Rico native.
"From his time in April to now, I think he's 100 times more polished," Harkey said. "He had some issues earlier about what it is he thought he was supposed to do, as opposed to what he was supposed to go out and do. We've had a lot of conversations as far as what he perceived as his shortcomings in calling a game.
"The growth he's had this year has been tremendous. What's hard for young catchers is to put both hitting and catching together at the same time. I think the fact that offensively, he's as solid as anybody can be at Triple-A, he still made great strides in calling the game. Either he hits or he catches, and he did both."
Soto was consistent throughout the season. His worst month at the plate was May, when he hit .303. He finished the year at an incredible clip, hitting .393 with nine homers and 42 RBIs in August.
"I was like 'Wow, everything's going really good,'" Soto said. "I was thinking 'When am I going to cool down?' and it never happened."
Overall, he finished with a .424 on-base percentage and .652 slugging percentage, numbers over which managers salivate when produced by a catcher.
"You've got to like the young man," Piniella said. "We've had other kids come up here from Triple-A with high averages, but this kid has a high average, a lot of RBIs and a lot of home runs. We liked him this spring. I see a kid here who could be the No. 1 catcher next spring."