Player of the Year

The date was August 23, a Thursday night in the town they call the "Big Easy." And in the aftermath of what was arguably his best performance of the season, Cubs catching prospect Geovany Soto was being showered in the visitors clubhouse with chants of: "MVP! MVP! MVP!"

"Most Valuable Puerto Rican," then-teammate Clay Rapada had proclaimed.

On this night, Soto hit two towering home runs for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, having only missed a third with a double off the left-center field wall of Zephyr Field. One of his home runs, in fact, landed just to the left of the New Orleans Saints' practice facility adjacent to the stadium.

At the time, Soto, 24, was putting the finishing touches on his third Triple-A season. With a 3-for-3 night at the plate that had elevated his batting average to a season-high .362 mark, he was also aware that he was likely putting the finishing touches on the Pacific Coast League's Most Valuable Player Award, as voted on each year by various beat writers and PCL managers.

But Soto wasn't too concerned about MVP honors. The only thing on his mind was the future.

"Hopefully, I get a September call-up," he said humbly.

It wasn't just the September call-up that Soto was eyeing, either. (He had received those in each of the two previous seasons and would receive another a week ago Saturday; going 4-for-7 with a double in two starts since.)

His goal was to be a part of the team managed by Lou Piniella, and not just in September but from Opening Day until closing time.

"I want to put good numbers up so that I have a good shot at being in the big leagues all of next year," Soto said.

For as humble as he would later be upon receiving the PCL's MVP award, it is that shot that ultimately matters most to Soto.

An 11th-round Cubs draft pick in 2001, Soto had the best year of any hitter in the Pacific Coast League as well as any hitter in the Cubs' farm system.

He would finish with a .353 batting average in 110 games with Iowa, leading the Cubs system with 26 home runs and 109 RBIs – numbers that Soto had never come close to achieving previously in his career.

He had participated in the All-Star Futures Game in San Francisco, and as the season wore on it would become obvious to those who had seen Soto play in past years that he had lost a considerable amount of weight this season.

Listed as 6'1" and 230 pounds at the start of spring camp, Soto would shed no less than 25 pounds by the time the minor league season ended.

"That's quickened him up in every area," Iowa manager Buddy Bailey said. "His speed is quicker, which in turn his bat is quicker."

"When that starts happening and you start having a little bit of success, all of a sudden your confidence level shoots up to where you think you're supposed to hit every time you step into the box, and I think that's where he's gotten."

Cubs Assistant General Manager Randy Bush meanwhile believes that Soto is the most improved player in the organization from top to bottom this season.

"Offensively, he's had off-the-chart improvement to where he's really seemed to figure out what it takes to be successful," said Bush. "He knows how to look for pitches and knows how to make adjustments with two strikes. He was already a very good defensive catcher and he's improved himself in that area.

"All-around, he's put himself in a position to be in the big leagues for a long, long time," Bush added.

Making Soto's feats all the more impressive is that he accomplished them at the most demanding position on the field.

All the while, his defense did not take a step back.

Soto served as the best all-around catcher in the Pacific Coast League, throwing out 31 percent of opposing runners (the fourth highest percentage in the league with 19 CS/61 ATT) while committing three errors and being charged with seven passed balls, the bulk of which came late into the season.

"[The weight loss] has been helping me a lot not only with my hitting, but I also think it's helped my arm and my stamina," Soto said.

The weight loss is not the only factor in Soto's success this season, but it is certainly the first thing that stands out.

"I think from a hitting standpoint, before, he was a guy that tried to hit the ball into right-center field and he's learned how to pull the ball and hit the ball where it's pitched. Maybe the weight loss has contributed to that," said Cubs Director of Player Development Oneri Fleita.

"There are a whole lot of things that sometimes a player, as times goes on ... they mature and they learn what they're capable of doing. I think a lot of times it takes players awhile to figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how that can play in on a daily basis. I think he's figured that out."

To many of his teammates, Soto was more than just an MVP; he was their leader on the field. His loose demeanor, complete with good-natured ribbing and practical jokes (occasionally at the expense of a stray reporter) in the clubhouse also made for a more relaxed mood in between games.

"He's been incredible," ex-teammate Scott Moore had said of Soto prior to being traded to the Baltimore Orioles. "He's leading the league in hitting and it goes further than that. He's a good team leader and that definitely makes our job easier. He's not afraid to speak up when he needs to and it helps when he goes onto the field and does what he needs to do. We all respect that."

And with the catcher's position being one in which the Cubs presently have no one player locked in to a long-term contract, Soto should get his chance to be the same leader in Chicago's clubhouse that he was in Iowa's.

He seems to have put together his best season in the minor leagues at precisely the right moment.

"I am a little bit surprised, but I always thought I could be this player," Soto said when reviewing his season. "I'm trying to obligate them to make a move. This year has put me in a good spot to fight for a job."

Said Bush: "Offensively and defensively, he's really elevated his game. I think he's going to be in Chicago for a long, long time."

EDITOR'S NOTE: The staff of names Geovany Soto the recipient of the " 2007 Cubs Minor League Player of the Year" award. Since 2004, the Cubs have recognized quality performances in their farm system by presenting an annual award to two players for their success in the past season. Those awards will be announced later this month.

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