All eyes on Jorge Soler at Cubs camp

All eyes on Jorge Soler at Cubs camp

February 15, 2013, 10:00 pm
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MESA, Ariz. – Looking out into the blue sky, you saw Jorge Soler drive a ball to left field that soared over the high fence, bounced sharply and nearly hit the white satellite truck parked there for the MLB Network.

It was so bright on Friday that Cubs president Theo Epstein had to shield his eyes with his hands while wearing sunglasses. Manager Dale Sveum stood to his left, with scouting executive Jason McLeod, farm director Brandon Hyde and general manager Jed Hoyer huddled around the cage.

The brass made sure to be in position on Field 1 at Fitch Park to watch their $30 million investment take batting practice.

It would have been a better story if Soler had put on a laser show, crushing balls all over the place, with the crowd gasping in amazement. But it was a quiet morning, with only a handful of fans looking at the future.

Soler didn’t get mobbed as he signed a few autographs before moving to the next field. Reporters maneuvered to take photos with their phones. He had been such a mystery as the Cubs made him one of their top targets last winter, along with another Cuban defector, Yoenis Cespedes.

At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Soler looks more like an NFL wideout than a kid with a nice smile who will celebrate his 21st birthday later this month.

Soler’s definitely a raw talent. He actually swung and missed one pitch during batting practice. He’ll need to knock off the rust.  

Remember that while Soler trained in the Dominican Republic – and finally established residency in Haiti – he didn’t play a real game for roughly two years. There’s a development gap from the 2010 World Junior Championships in Canada up until last summer, when he cashed in before the new collective bargaining agreement put restrictions on international spending.

After the workout, Soler sat with his suitcase on a sidewalk in the parking lot, waiting for his ride, an image that should reinforce the idea that he won’t be rushed to Wrigley Field.

Look for Soler to begin this season on the Class-A level, either in Daytona (the more optimistic scenario), or Kane County, where fans could get a preview The Foundation for Sustained Success.

“Guys like him, they haven’t played much baseball,” Sveum said. “We all know about the tools. But the fast track? There’s no reason to do that. He’s still got to play and learn so much and face better pitching on a consistent basis. That experience factor comes in handy.”

Sveum – an old hitting coach with specific ideas about mechanics – said Soler reminded him of a “right-handed Cliff Floyd” during batting practice. Soler – who could show off his strong arm in right field – immediately becomes one of the most intriguing players to watch when the Cubs open their Cactus League schedule on Feb. 23.

“He has the hand strength, which none of us can teach,” Sveum said. “It’s nice to watch that kind of BP, but until things start happening in the game – that’s when you start seeing why things are breaking down or why maybe we need to make this adjustment.

“Does he have plate coverage? Is his bat staying in the strike zone long enough to handle a cutter on the outside part of the plate? You can go on and on. That’s why I’m really looking forward to games.”

The Cubs have a strong network in the Dominican built in part by former executive Oneri Fleita. Their scouts – including Louie Eljaua, Paul Weaver, Alex Suarez and Jose Serra – developed strong bonds with Soler and Cespedes.

The idea of Chicago intrigued Cespedes, who ultimately went with the Oakland A’s when they offered $36 million over four years. The Cubs were all-in on Soler.

Soler worked out in Miami this winter, at times with Albert Almora, the 2012 first-round pick whose family has a Cuban background. At Fitch Park, Soler will locker next to Javier Baez, the organization’s top prospect. They are supposed to be the building blocks.

When asked when he expects to make it to the big leagues, Soler said through an interpreter: “Next year.”