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Cubs’ cold dish: Geovany Soto under pressure from Welington Castillo

WelingtCastillo was hitting .320 with .520 slugging percentage Class AAA Iowa. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Welington Castillo was hitting .320 with a .520 slugging percentage at Class AAA Iowa. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 30, 2012 8:34AM



PHILADELPHIA — It’s not the way anyone planned it, but catcher Welington Castillo is back in the big leagues. And now that he’s back with the Cubs, the heat could be on starter Geovany Soto.

‘‘I think it’s too early to worry about production and pushing anybody or anything like that,’’ Cubs manager Dale Sveum said.

But Soto already was looking at a key season in his career because of a new management team, his contract status and the fast-rising catchers coming up behind him in the system, including the strong-armed Castillo, who was hitting .320 with a .520 slugging percentage at Class AAA Iowa.

Castillo, recalled Saturday to replace injured rookie Steve Clevenger (11-for-22 before Friday’s rib-cage injury), went right into the lineup when Soto was scratched as a precaution for mild tightness in his upper back.

Soto’s back issue isn’t considered serious, and he was available off the bench during Saturday’s 5-2 loss against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

Castillo, meanwhile, is expected to start again Sunday, and Sveum said he plans to give Castillo more playing time than Clevenger ‘‘because he’s an every-day catcher that’s caught all the time every day, a guy that can swing the bat as well and a guy that’s been playing well and can stop a running game.’’

Sounds like the guy Sveum raved about in spring training as someone capable of starting in the big leagues.

‘‘But,’’ Sveum stressed, ‘‘Soto’s still the every-day guy.’’

Soto, 29, has looked like one of the top catchers in the league at times during his four-plus seasons as the starter, but he has struggled since 2008 to show the durability and offensive production that earned him a starting All-Star bid and Rookie of the Year honors that season.

He hit .228 with 17 home runs in a 2011 season limited to 125 games by a 21/2-week groin injury.

‘‘It’s been inconsistent,’’ Sveum said of Soto’s track record. ‘‘But the home runs are still there, and the on-base percentage is still there. Sometimes when a guy has a rookie season like he did, we kind of put a scale on that too much and [need to] understand that the league knows how to pitch him better than they did then and all those kind of things.’’

But Soto makes $4.3 million this year with one more year of arbitration eligibility left, putting him in a show-me season with a first-year front office scrutinizing every part of the organization with long-term value in mind.

His 7-for-52 (.135) opening month hasn’t helped, though Sveum said his at-bats have been fine.

‘‘It’s not going to help me to mope around or be down about myself,’’ said Soto, who adds that he’s focused on the team and has faith in himself. ‘‘I know what I can do, and right now it’s early — 50 at-bats into the season. You can’t be panicking at this point. You just put good at-bats together and see what happens.’’

Given the often sensitive and lengthy nature of an oblique injury such as Clevenger’s, the compromised catching depth rules out any quick moves or trade attempts.

But it does seem to assure Castillo a long opportunity to compete for a place in the new regime’s plans, maybe sooner than anticipated.

And that new front office already has traded one slumping player under contract through this season, Marlon Byrd, to create playing time for promising younger players.

Soto said he feels like he’s being pushed by Castillo and Clevenger.

‘‘Absolutely,’’ he said, ‘‘in a positive way. The better they get, the better you get.  … I’m glad they’re doing great. And helping the club is the most important thing.’’

That’s also part of what might be getting overlooked about Soto.

‘‘Geo’s still having good at-bats, still catching well,’’ Sveum said, ‘‘so he’s doing a lot of other things behind the scenes.’’



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