PLAYER TO WATCH
Mike Fontenot was appearing at the annual Cubs Convention in January when someone vaguely resembling teammate Geovany Soto strolled in. "I did a double take," says the Chicago second baseman. "I was like, 'That skinny guy ... is that Geo?'" It was in fact the Cubs catcher, 40 pounds lighter, at 200, after he hired a personal trainer and revamped his diet while home in Puerto Rico for the winter.
As NL Rookie of the Year in 2008, Soto tied for the lead among NL catchers in home runs (23), but last season he hit only .218 with 11 homers. "I felt like I let down the team," says Soto, who was also embarrassed by a positive test for marijuana during last spring's World Baseball Classic. (He was banned from international play for two years.) "After the season I thought, I need to go home and get my priorities straight." To the inevitable steroid speculation that comes with such dramatic weight loss Soto replies, "I wasn't strong last year. I was just fat."
The 27-year-old believes shedding weight will allow him to better turn on fastballs, which he had trouble doing last year, and avoid nagging injuries. With aging stars Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez also hobbled, offense was the Cubs' downfall in 2009. "We went from scoring more than 850 runs and leading the league [in '08] to barely 700 last year," says manager Lou Piniella. "We need to score at least 800 to be successful this year." Soto's return to rookie form would help them get there.
The Cubs' winning percentage (47--32) against NL Central opponents in 2009, best in the division. Too bad they had so much trouble beating the NL West (15--20) and the AL (6--9)—they might not have trailed the Central-winning Cardinals by 7½ games.
You have to manage the roster you have, not the one you wish you had. Lou Piniella probably wishes he had a pitcher good enough to get three outs in the ninth inning consistently, but he does not. Nominal closer Carlos Marmol is Mitch Williams with slightly better mechanics; he has allowed nearly six walks every nine innings in his career and last year walked 7.9 per nine. As difficult as he is to hit—he has a career batting average against of .181—that kind of walk rate is extremely dangerous for a closer. Piniella has to be flexible, working southpaw John Grabow into situations in which lefties are batting in the ninth, perhaps calling on Sean Marshall or even Carlos Silva when a ground ball is in order. Overcommitting to an underqualified closer will make for a long season for an aging team that may be nearing the closure of its competitive window.
WITH 2009 STATISTICS
Manager Lou Piniella
4TH SEASON WITH CUBS
*Minor league stats
JOHN BIEVER (SOTO)
WEIGHT WATCH Chicago needs the slimmer Soto to regain his '08 form.
ROBERT BECK (MARMOL)