MESA, Ariz. -- Geovany Soto saw the 242 on the scale and was neither surprised nor upset. "Not really," he said. "I've seen worse."
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It wasn't until the Chicago Cubs catcher looked in the mirror that he hated what he saw: a guy who failed his colleagues, his team, his fan base and himself.
"I feel like I let down my teammates," said the 2008 NL Rookie of the Year, whose sophomore slump contributed to a disappointing '09 Cubs season. "I wanted to show that I care. I needed to show that I really worked in the offseason."
Soto hired a personal trainer, changed his diet dramatically and worked out furiously. The next time his teammates caught a glimpse of him -- at the Cubs Convention in January -- they saw a fit athlete who looked like a middle infielder.
"You know what?" pitcher Carlos Zambrano said at the time. "He looks shorter."
Shorter? No. He's still 6-foot-1, but he's 40 pounds lighter, with a waistline 6 inches narrower.
"It's the best I've been body-wise my whole life," Soto said. "I have a lot of energy. I feel like a 12-year-old."
So far in spring training, Soto's manager has noticed an "appreciable difference."
"A lot quicker behind home plate, a lot more nimble," Lou Piniella said Monday. "Better bat speed; the ball's been jumping off his bat. I know he's worked hard here and hasn't complained at all about getting tired. He's in pretty darn good shape."
As he advanced within the Cubs' system, Soto said, being heavy hadn't hurt his production. He certainly wasn't skinny in 2008, when he started the All-Star Game and batted .285 with 23 homers, 35 doubles and 86 RBIs.
But last season got off to an awful start -- a .109 April average -- and he never got going, finishing at .218 with 11 homers and 47 RBIs.
"He was in that World Baseball Classic and I don't think that did him any good," Piniella said. "The Puerto Rican team had [Yadier] Molina and Pudge Rodriguez. If he could have gotten his normal playing time ... it would have been fine. But to sit for a long, long period, it wasn't good."
Shoulder and oblique injuries kept Soto out of the lineup for stretches last season, and Piniella even used career backup Koyie Hill instead of a healthy Soto on several occasions. The Cubs were 42-27 in Hill's starts compared to 41-51 with Soto behind the plate.
Combined with Milton Bradley's mood swings, injuries to Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano, and the severe statistical drop-offs of Zambrano, Soriano and Mike Fontenot, Soto's woes condemned the two-time NL Central champion Cubs to also-ran status last season.
In June, the International Baseball Federation said Soto tested positive for marijuana during the WBC, turning a bad year into a humiliating one.
"I hated what happened last season and I had to do something about it," he said. "I thought, 'I've got to go home and get my priorities straight.'"
Now that he's in shape, Soto actually plans to add a little muscle weight so he can play at 210 pounds.
"New me, new season, new attitude," he said. "Let's go get 'em in 2010!"
His boss likes the sound of that.
"I think he's going to bounce back," Piniella said. "If we can get him to duplicate his first year, we're in business."
NotesThe starting pitchers are set for the Cubs' first five days of exhibition games: Thursday, Randy Wells; Friday, Carlos Zambrano; Saturday, Carlos Silva; Sunday (split squad), Jeff Samardzija and Tom Gorzelanny; March 8, Ryan Dempster. ... Piniella said teenager Starlin Castro probably will start at SS in Thursday's opener. ... The White Sox requested that the teams use the DH rule Saturday in Mesa, and Piniella said OK "only because of Ozzie" Guillen, the Sox manager.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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