Soto wins NL Rookie of the Year Award

Soto wins NL Rookie of the Year

CHICAGO -- Geovany Soto was named the National League winner of the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award on Monday, but he gave credit to a 37-year-old veteran who began his career when the Cubs catcher was just 7.

Soto was an overwhelming winner of the award, receiving 31 out of 32 first-place votes by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Soto was second on one ballot, with Cincinnati's Joey Votto receiving the other first-place vote.

Soto batted .285 with 23 homers and 86 RBIs in his freshman season and is the first catcher to win the league honor since Mike Piazza did so 15 years ago. The Cubs backstop was the only player named on all ballots. Teammate Kosuke Fukudome received one second-place and one third-place vote in the ballots cast by BBWAA members.

Give veteran Henry Blanco, who began his pro career in 1990, an assist for Soto's performance.

"I wouldn't be doing the things I did this year if it wasn't for Henry Blanco," Soto said of the Cubs' backup catcher. "He helped me a lot and talked to me every single day, all day. He treated me like a small brother. It felt good to have a veteran guy help me the way he did on catching and game calling. He was huge for me this year. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be doing the things I was doing this year."

What Soto did this past season was amazing. He led all Major League rookies in RBIs and handled a veteran pitching staff, which finished with the third-lowest ERA in the league. He was the first rookie catcher to start in an All-Star Game, doing so at Yankee Stadium in July. He won NL Rookie of the Month honors twice -- in April and August. On Sept. 14, he was behind the plate for Carlos Zambrano's no-hitter.

On Sept. 18, in what Soto calls one of his highlights for the season, he delivered a game-tying, three-run homer with two outs in the ninth that forced extra innings against Milwaukee. The Cubs rallied to win, 7-6, on Derrek Lee's RBI single in the 12th. That was Soto's 23rd and last homer of the season, the most by a Cubs rookie catcher and most for any Cubs rookie since Billy Williams hit 25 in 1961.

Soto was called up in September 2007, batted .426 and impressed Cubs manager Lou Piniella enough that he started two of the team's three playoff games. In 2007, Soto was the Pacific Coast League Player of the Year. That season helped the young catcher's confidence.

2008 NL Rookie of the Year Voting
Player, Club 1st 2nd 3rd Points
Geovany Soto, CHC 31 1   158
Joey Votto, CIN 1 21 8 76
Jair Jurrjens, ATL   6 16 34
Edinson Volquez, CIN*   3   9
Jay Bruce, CIN     7 7
Kosuke Fukudome, CHC   1 1 4
* Volquez received votes despite being ineligible as a rookie.

"I didn't know what to expect [in the big leagues]," Soto said. "I felt scared a couple times during the season, and I didn't know what was going on. A lot of the guys helped me out psychologically. They said, 'It's the same thing, different guys.' They said, 'You're good enough to do your job.'"

Give Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster an assist as well. He kept Soto in line.

"Day in and day out, [Dempster] said, 'You have to stay ready. Every single day, you have to be ready. Yesterday is yesterday's news. Stay ready, stay focused, stay humble. You've got to do this, be the best,'" Soto said. "He always pumped me up. He'll call me out to the mound and cuss me a little bit, but it's all part of him trying to make me better and me trying to make him better."

Soto is the fifth Cubs player to win the award and first since Kerry Wood did so his rookie season in 1998, when he posted a 13-6 record and 3.40 ERA while striking out 233. Other Cubs to win the freshman honor include Jerome Walton (1989), Ken Hubbs (1962) and Williams (1961).

His ability to handle the Cubs' pitchers should not be overlooked.

"I was surprised when I came over here and first had a chance to work with him," Chicago pitcher Rich Harden said of the young catcher. "For a rookie, he's got a very good idea back there. It's not just handling the pitching staff and calling pitches but at the plate, he's done some amazing things."

The first rookie catcher to hit at least 30 doubles and 20 homers in a single season, Soto's .504 slugging percentage ranked second among Major League catchers, trailing only Atlanta's Brian McCann.

If there's one downside, it's that Soto's hand still hurts even though he's had more than a month to heal.

"They called me and said, 'You're the National League Rookie of the Year.' Wow. It's a dream come true, especially to be in the same category as with some big names. I feel very humble and very honored."
-- Geovany Soto

"It was the worst hurt you could have without being injured," he said. "It was a pain I couldn't really shake. You had to give me five or six minutes and it would go away. It didn't get better because it was in my catching hand. I just had to play through it."

He's undergoing treatment still and expects to be fine by mid-December. He wasn't feeling any pain when he received the news that he'd won top rookie honors.

"[My wife] told me, 'I knew you could do this,'" Soto said. "Then I called my mom and dad. Mom was still crying when I called. She was very excited. It was a very special moment.

"I feel honored. It's kind of surreal. It hasn't sunk in yet. They called me and said, 'You're the National League Rookie of the Year.' Wow. It's a dream come true, especially to be in the same category as with some big names. I feel very humble and very honored."

There is another hurt to deal with. For the second straight year, the Cubs were swept in the NL Division Series, but Soto said he's over the loss to Los Angeles this October.

"We weren't hitting the ball or getting clutch hits, and the Dodgers came out and played hard and they simply outplayed us," he said. "They outpitched us and had clutch home runs and key home runs. We did have a better team than we showed in the playoffs, but it's not the best team on paper, it's who performs the best. We didn't do that and we got beat in three games."

There were a lot of positives this season, including Dempster's return to the rotation, Wood's successful switch to closer, Zambrano's no-hitter, Carlos Marmol's performance as a setup pitcher.

"I hope next year we play the same baseball we did this year," Soto said. "We played terrific baseball -- we won 97 games. We did a really good job. We just have to stay hot for the playoffs. We just got cold in the playoffs and didn't do what we're capable of. I think we have a great team and we'll be all right."

Spoken like a veteran.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.