The Los Angeles Dodgers will find out if Yasiel Puig can handle being a star in Hollywood.
Watching Puig has been said to be a motivating force for Jorge Soler, the $30 million outfielder the Cubs believe will be a foundation piece in Theo Epstein’s rebuilding project.
The two Cuban players know each other but aren’t particularly close. Puig has drawn comparisons to Bo Jackson and will be pushed for next month’s All-Star Game in New York. Puig’s hitting .425 with six homers and 12 RBI through 19 games with the Dodgers, becoming a classic highlight-film player for the YouTube/Twitter generation.
The Cubs need that sort of organizational jolt, though it’s not coming anytime soon from advanced Class-A Daytona prospects like Soler and Javier Baez. A 31-43 team begins a three-city road trip on Tuesday night in Milwaukee with the understanding that the next five weeks will be all about the July 31 trade deadline and how they can maximize their selling potential.
The sense is the Cubs won’t view Puig as another one who got away, the way they’ve looked back on bids for Asian pitchers Yu Darvish and Hyun-Jin Ryu and felt handcuffed by ownership’s mid-market operating philosophy.
The Cubs understood Puig would be a high-risk, high-reward investment, and those off-the-field concerns showed up again in late April, when he was arrested in Chattanooga, Tenn., for reckless driving, speeding 97 mph in a 50 mph zone and not having proof of insurance.
The Cubs are putting Soler — who hasn’t played in a game since June 13 after going on the disabled list with a shin injury — on a much slower track. Puig, who will turn 23 in December, played just 63 games in the minors and only 40 this season with Double-A Chattanooga before getting called up to Dodger Stadium.
The Cubs purposely put together an experienced staff at Daytona, so their elite prospects could get an idea of what it takes.
Manager Dave Keller has spent nearly three decades coaching in pro ball. Hitting coach Mariano Duncan played 12 seasons in the big leagues, winning World Series rings with the 1990 Cincinnati Reds and 1996 New York Yankees. Pitching coach Storm Davis lasted 13 years in the majors, contributing to two World Series winners, the 1983 Baltimore Orioles and 1989 Oakland A’s.
“The Cubs Way” led Keller to bench Soler in late April for not hustling.
“We want kids to play hard and understand the effort level that has to come out on a daily basis,” Keller said. “Just about every single day you don’t feel 100 percent. But you still got to go out there and give as much as you got, whether it’s 98 or 85 or whatever.
“I’ve heard so many people talk about it: It takes no ability to hustle. It takes no ability to play hard and run hard to first base — four-and-a-half seconds — or to run on and off the field or to be on time, any of those things that go into how you want your mindset to be from an organizational standpoint. That’s what everybody from top to bottom is emphasizing. It’s a habit.
“So whether it’s Jorge or Javy or (outfield prospect) John Andreoli — anybody — that (effort) has to be there all the time and it goes back to work habits. It goes back to dedication, preparation, all those things that we talk about. We just have to make sure that we stay on top of them and get the point across.”
The Florida State League also suspended Soler for five games in April after instigating a bench-clearing incident in which he grabbed a bat and had to be restrained until teammates and coaches defused the situation.
One National League scout didn’t like Soler’s body language or the bat flips and questioned his ability to hit the breaking ball. He’s batting .281 with eight homers and 35 RBI through 55 games at Daytona.
Remember, Soler essentially missed two years of game action as he defected from Cuba, worked out in the Dominican Republic, established residency in Haiti and finally gained clearance in the United States, where he has to be experiencing some level of culture shock.
“The good thing that I like about Soler is he’s having quality at-bats for a guy that’s obviously pretty young baseball-wise,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. “He’s seeing pitches. So like I said in spring training, the poise he has on the field for a guy that hasn’t been out there much is (above and beyond) what you expect at 21 years old. He’s still learning.”
Keller understands the expectations after managing Manny Ramirez in the early 1990s during his first two seasons in the Cleveland Indians system.
“Very fun to watch,” Keller recalled. “He was very coachable, a totally different person when he was hitting with people on base. You could tell that from an early age with him. He was a really, really good instinctual player when he first signed with the Indians.
“He was probably more similar to Soler than he is to Baez, in terms of learning more about how the game is played at a professional level. It was (more the) little things that sometimes people take for granted, like secondary leads, going first-to-third (or) hitting the cutoff man, some of those fundamental things that you normally teach at lower levels.”
Keller doesn’t think in terms of how much longer he’ll manage Soler and Baez, instead focusing on the game that night and blocking out each week. The Daytona staff gathers for a specific meeting each month to review the previous four weeks, going over their video system, medical information and strength program.
While Cubs fans and the Chicago media wonder when these prospects will hit Wrigley Field, the Daytona staff is looking at Double-A Tennessee.
“I want these guys to be prepared when they go to the next level,” Keller said. “One of my biggest concerns and one of my biggest goals for these kids here is that when they leave this level, they know their routine. They know what they got to do every day to prepare for their games. They got to know what they do in the cage. They got to know (their) video work. They got to know their groundball work or flyball work.
“All that routine has to be solid. They have to really be locked in (and) know themselves (and) exactly what their drills are in the cage. They need to know all that routine, so when you go to the next level from here, you’re really just learning the pitchers (and) everything else is on like automatic.”
So the Cubs aren’t trying to create an overnight star like Puig, hoping they can develop big names to put up on the marquee for years to come.