Theo Epstein wouldn’t call it jealousy. But Jorge Soler definitely noticed Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, maybe feeling like those elite prospects had passed him by, using it as fuel to show he belongs.
The Cubs president of baseball operations unwrapped the $30 million Cuban outfielder, and Soler homered off Mat Latos with his first big-league swing on Wednesday night at Great American Ball Park. That shot traveled 423 feet to left-center, and Soler added an RBI single in a 7-5 loss to the Cincinnati Reds.
It’s easy to tie it up in a bow now, pretend everything went according to The Plan and dream about the Cubs being contenders in 2015.
This won’t make peace with the rooftop owners, speed up the Wrigley Field renovations or close the TV megadeal. The major-league payroll is nowhere close to where a big-market team should be. Stay tuned to see if the business side can crack the code to this leveraged partnership.
Still, the how and why of Soler’s rise should encourage Cubs fans desperate for good headlines and convince the Chicago media just catching up after Bears training camp that this will be a big story.
Just think back to late May, Soler leaving Double-A Tennessee and heading to the team’s Arizona complex to rehab a strained right hamstring. A left hamstring injury had limited him to one game in April and only six in May.
All that on top of the stress fracture in Soler’s left leg that cut short his 2013 season — after missing roughly two years of game action while defecting from Cuba.
“Instead of getting really down on himself and pouting and becoming impatient with his rehab, he really embraced that adversity as an opportunity to get better,” Epstein said. “At the same time, he was watching what Javy and Kris Bryant were doing at Triple-A (Iowa). We got the sense he was really happy for those guys, but he wanted to catch up.
“When our staff met with him towards the end of his rehab — when it was just about time for him to rejoin Tennessee — he communicated that he was on a mission: ‘It’s my time to shine. I’m happy for all my teammates, but watch me — this is my time.’”
Take away Bryant’s unbelievable start to his professional career. At that point, it looked like it could be a panic-button year for an organization betting everything on the farm system while writing off big-league seasons.
Baez had gone through a brutal April at Iowa, while 2012 first-round pick Albert Almora struggled at advanced Class-A Daytona. C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson — arguably the organization’s best pitching prospects — were sidelined with injuries.
Cubs officials kept insisting Soler lived up to the initial evaluations that got him a nine-year, major-league contract: Good kid, fast-twitch athlete with sharp baseball instincts. The guy just couldn’t stay on the field.
“The first thing that fans will notice about Soler is how impressive he is physically,” Epstein said. “He’s got as good a baseball power body as you’ll see at 6-3, 6-4. He’s put together really well. He looks like an NFL player. Physically intimidating.”
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In Mesa, the training staff and strength/conditioning coaches did a full-body assessment, trying to restructure Soler’s 215-pound frame and rewire a 22-year-old player.
“In layman’s terms,” Epstein said, “he had a disproportionate amount of his muscle mass located on the anterior side of his body — the front of his body — and that was creating some inequalities and put extra strain on his hamstrings.
“For a player who’s had a recurring injury, they really tend to study the whole kinetic chain, from his toes and his feet and the way he runs, and the impact that has up through his legs, through his hamstrings, up to his core.
“They changed the way he runs a little bit, his posture, redistributed the muscle mass and made him more well-balanced and more athletic with some of his movements. It’s paid off.”
Around that time, Iowa’s new player/coach/lightning rod showed up at Cubs Park to get in shape. Manny Ramirez worked with Soler in the cage, refining a swing that generated more line drives, getting the barrel to the ball and elevating it with backspin.
[MORE CUBS: Cubs want to see how big bet on Jorge Soler pays off]
Soler returned to Tennessee in July and put up a 1.538 OPS in 15 games. That forced the promotion to Iowa, where he hit .282 with eight homers, 11 doubles, 17 walks and 29 RBIS in 32 games.
“He’s not truly a raw player despite not having many professional at-bats to his credit, because he was born with a very advanced approach at the plate,” Epstein said. “He recognizes the ball out of the pitcher’s hand well. He recognizes spin. He’s got a good idea of the strike zone. He understands how to work an at-bat, how to get a pitch he can drive.
“He can occasionally get overaggressive, like all young hitters, but he tends to dial himself back in. And when he struggles, he focuses on just getting that good pitch to hit. Because of that, I think he’s been able to adjust quickly at the upper levels of the farm system.”
This is also someone who’s only played 54 games above the A-ball level. The Cubs are about to find out if Soler really is ready for prime time. Get your popcorn ready.
“He comes to the big leagues with a lot of momentum,” Epstein said, “but with an awful lot to learn.”