Soto's poor spring has Piniella anxious

Cubs catcher Geovany Soto is hitless in his last 17 at-bats this spring. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

PHOENIX -- Lou Piniella was speechless.

Ten seconds turned into 20 seconds, peppered with several "uhs" and a pregnant pause that would make Ron Santo proud.

"The question was?" he asked reporters before Friday's exhibition game at Chase Field, before laughing, just a bit.

The question was whether he has seen a "better approach at the plate" from Geovany Soto, who is in the midst of a spring slump.

A Piniella pause isn't always indicative of some hidden meaning. Sometimes he really does forget the question, and sometimes he's thinking deeply for an answer. In this case, it seems as though he was trying to be give a proper answer without being provocative. Maybe he didn't want to put Soto on notice, but he did.

"Look," he said, "he needs to swing the bat a little better. C'mon, we've gotten one extra-base hit out of our catchers this spring, the catchers we still have here. We'd like to see a little better. We'd like to see a lot better, actually."

Soto went hitless in his last 17 Cactus League at-bats since March 20, though he has walked three times. In all, he was 8-for-35 (.229) in spring parks. He had one double and three RBIs in 18 games. Can you judge someone on spring statistics?

Well, statistics are generally derived from the way you're performing, and Tyler Colvin is on the roster and is leading the Cactus League in hitting. So yeah, you can see something from the way a guy is swinging the bat.

"Spring training performance is not a guarantee of what will happen when the bell rings," Piniella said. "If you're playing really poor, it's hard to turn it on when the season starts."

In Soto's case, maybe a poor spring is a harbinger for good things. In 2008, he hit .194 in 22 games, though he had three doubles, a homer and seven RBIs. Last year, in 11 games, he hit .320 with two doubles, two homers and seven RBIs.

Perhaps, Piniella said, all the extra work with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo will start to show next week.

"Rudy has had these guys out there every day with a program," Piniella said. "And these guys might be a little tired. Once they leave here, get a normal amount of rest, and the weather is a little cooler, you can gain strength really, really quick. Let's hope that's the case with the guys that are struggling."

Soto's freefall from a dazzling 2009 Rookie of the Year season was precipitous. Soto, as nice a guy as you'll meet, was overweight and inwardly troubled by a positive marijuana test during the World Baseball Classic, where he wasted valuable training time riding the pine for Puerto Rico.

With Aramis Ramirez's April injury, that chip on Milton Bradley's shoulder that kept him from hitting with runners in scoring position, and Alfonso Soriano's post-April malaise, the Cubs needed him to come close to his 2008 performance. Instead of Geo, they got Todd Hundley numbers.

And Soto knew it. He wants to be a star, a role model and a Cubs hero. He went home and took care of business. He lost 40 pounds in the offseason, so much that the team wanted him to bulk up a little when he reported to camp too svelte.

"Soto lost 40 pounds," Ramirez said, when I noted that he looked skinny himself. "I'm trying to keep up with him."

Piniella praised Soto for his figure early in camp, noting he was getting around on pitches better, but as the manager said, "That was early in camp."

"I'm feeling good," Soto said earlier in the week. "Coming in, I got into shape. I'm feeling confident. I'm just anxious to start."

Soto's rookie performance helped carry the Cubs to a division title, and while it might have been an outlier season, it wasn't a total aberration.

"He's fully capable," Piniella said. "Last year his batting average dropped off to .218, but he had 11 home runs and 47 RBIs, very representative. You improve that batting average just a little and hit for the same amount of power per at-bats and RBI per at-bats, and you've had a real solid year."

You know Piniella is thinking about this, because he knew Soto's stats by rote. He couldn't remember where a spring training game was the other day.

Piniella said he had Soto and Soriano watch video with Jaramillo before Thursday's game.

Soriano went 3-for-3 with a two-run homer and a stolen base, improving his average from .235 to .278. Soto was pulled early, after walking once, so Koyie Hill could catch Carlos Silva for the first time in a spring game.

"I was excited about Soriano," Piniella said. "I really enjoyed my meal [Thursday] night."

Hill will continue to get at-bats. He throws better than Soto, Piniella said, and they both handle the pitching staff well. I'm convinced Piniella is worried about Soto, though he's certainly not panicking.

But Piniella is realistic about what the Cubs need from him, meaning Soto shouldn't have to carry this team. The Cubs need him to be a productive complementary hitter. They know he can be more than that.

Soto hit eighth Friday night, just below Mike Fontenot. That might not mean anything. But just because spring stats don't show up on your baseball card doesn't mean they don't exist.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.