It's not at all surprising Geovany Soto took home National League Rookie of the Year honors with a nearly unanimous vote. When it comes to fantasy baseball, the guy wasn't just a solid rookie worth a look; he was arguably the MVP of his position, as well.
Soto was the ninth catcher selected in ESPN average live drafts before the season, and the return on that investment was certainly worth it. Soto became the first Cubs catcher to hit 20 home runs and knock in more than 80 runs since Jody Davis 25 years earlier, and that accomplishment really is just that rare. Brian McCann of the Braves was the only other backstop to reach 20-80 this season. If you wanted power from your catcher, Soto was a far better value than McCann, especially given their relative draft positions. Of course, there were also a lot of fantasy busts behind the plate this season. I mean, the first catcher off the board (Victor Martinez) dropped from 25 home runs to two!
Fantasy owners got a taste of what Soto was capable of late in 2007, when he batted .389 and slugged three home runs in 18 games with the big club. At Triple-A Iowa that season, Soto batted .353 with 26 home runs and 109 RBIs in 110 games, numbers that didn't look anything like what he had produced in previous minor league campaigns. Soto was supposed to hit, but not be the next Mike Piazza. Instead, what the Cubs and fantasy owners got in 2008 was arguably the best rookie season for a catcher since Piazza in 1993.
Considering Soto will be only 26 years old by next season, it's possible there's more power to come, but let's not assume this rookie season is just the tip of the iceberg. I think we've seen the iceberg, so to speak. When fantasy owners look for a starting catcher, and they can't get one of the top names, chances are they'll end up with either power or batting average. Soto hit .285 as a rookie, and didn't suffer Russell Martin/Paul Lo Duca syndrome and see a dramatic drop in the second half. Soto was consistent, hitting three or more home runs each month. But I don't see him hitting 40 home runs anytime soon, either.
For 2009 drafts, Soto has to be considered at worst a top-5 catcher, and the case can be made he's top-3, and a top-50 player. Victor Martinez should be healthy and get his power back, but that's no guarantee, and how much longer will he be a catcher? Joe Mauer wins batting titles, but if power is your thing, look elsewhere. McCann is a safe pick. Soto finished fifth on the ESPN Player Rater at catcher, behind Mauer, McCann, Martin and the Pirates' Ryan Doumit. I'd place him third for 2009 drafts, behind only Mauer and McCann, as Martin's stolen bases aren't the factor they once were, and Doumit could always hit, but expecting a .318 batting average again is asking for too much.
Soto received 31 of the 32 first-place votes for top rookie honors, with only Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto preventing a clean sweep. Votto had a fine season, batting .297 with 24 home runs and 84 RBIs, even stealing seven bases, but he's not a catcher. Considering the vast difference in depth between the loaded first-base spot and a weak catcher spot in which Bengie Molina becomes someone in demand, Soto was far more valuable. While I'd expect Votto to become a 30-100 player in the near future, and Soto to fall short of that, there's little question which player should be drafted first in a fantasy league.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.