It wasn’t that long ago the Geovany Soto was being compared to Johnny Bench.  Soto’s performance in 2008–.285/.364/.504, starting in the All Star Game, winning the Rookie of the Year, and generally taking the league by storm–put him into elite company.  However, his subsequent performance has forced many to rethink those early comparisons.

Put simply, Soto has been riding a statistical seesaw the last few years.  2009 was a nosedive season (.218/.321/.381) plagued by injuries and off-the-field issues.  He failed to dodge the injury bug again in 2010, but when he was on the field he looked like his former self (.280/.393/.497), giving Cubs fans reason to hope his ’09 campaign was an anomaly.  Unfortunately 2011 (.228/.310/.411) proved it wasn’t.

The fact is, Soto doesn’t fall into the usual whatever-you-get-at-the-plate-is-a-bonus category of catchers.  He’s proven he can be a legitimate offensive threat–one that could be mighty handy for this Cubs team that looks to be FAR short of production and pop.

And while the seesaw pattern of his career ought to be due for a swing back to the positive side this season, the prognosticators over at Fangraphs aren’t convinced.  Bill James is the most optimistic, guessing at predicting a line of .252/.345/.450.

I’ll be looking for Soto to improve in a few key areas this season.  Like almost every other Cub, he needs to cut down on his strikeouts.  He’s always floated around a 20% strikeout rate, but last year it shot up above 26%.  It’s not realistic to think his offense will improve if he can’t learn to be more selective at the plate.

Along with that, I’m also looking (hoping) for a significant bump in his batting average.  (And yeah, I know that’s not the most popular measuring stick, but since he pulls a pretty steady average of .090 points for his walks and HBP, I’m targeting the area where he has shown a lot of fluctuation–between .218 and .285.)  Even a modest .050 point improvement–which would be only his third best season so far–would be a significant improvement over the anemic .228 he posted last season.

Finally, I want to see him make it through the season without another momentum-killing visit to the Disabled List.  Since his rookie campaign, Soto hasn’t made it through the season without a tweaked shoulder, wrist, or groin.  Considering he’s already missed some Spring Training with a groin strain, maybe this is unrealistic.  But few Cubs take longer to heat up after a trip to the DL, so consistent playing time might be the simplest solution for what’s ailed Soto in the past.

I like Soto–not nearly as much as Lizzie, but certainly more than Joe.  For his sake and the Cubs’, I hope he can turn things around at the plate and give Theo and Jed a reason to invest in him.  When he’s at his best, his hitting is what separates him from his peers.  But if he fails to improve at the plate this season, the Cubs might be inclined to go with a younger, cheaper option.

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