MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs are in on just about everybody.
Team president Theo Epstein has made that point to illustrate how the Cubs are going to try to dig out from a 101-loss season and build a perennial contender.
It’s been hard to miss this spring, whether it’s $30 million Cuban defector Jorge Soler almost hitting a satellite truck during batting practice at Fitch Park or Japanese closer-in-waiting Kyuji Fujikawa listening to Edwin Jackson’s hip-hop music and dancing inside the HoHoKam Stadium clubhouse. The Cubs will look all over the world for talent.
The latest import is Armando Rivero, the 25-year-old Cuban right-hander who received a $3.1 million bonus that does not count against the team’s pool for the 2012-2013 signing period. Changes to the collective bargaining agreement underlined how creative this front office would have to become.
Cubs executives traveled to the Dominican Republic around Thanksgiving 2011 to scout a group of players that included Soler and Rivero, not long after Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and senior vice president of scouting/player development Jason McLeod reunited at Clark and Addison.
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McLeod sat in his Fitch Park office on Wednesday and laughed while looking back on how long it’s been to get to this point.
“We were just trying to acquire as much power – power bats and power arms – as we could,” McLeod said. “Obviously, (Rivero) had his saga of getting into the States and getting his residency and all that. (So) he’s just going through his throwing program right now. I think he’s only been off the mound once, so we’re gradually building him back up.
“It had been, (shoot), a year, probably more than a year now, since he’s pitched competitively. He was in Haiti for six, seven months with a few of the other guys (establishing residency). We’re just taking baby steps with him.”
Rivero is represented by Praver Shapiro Sports Management, the South Florida agency that delivered Soler to the Cubs. McLeod said the 6-foot-3-inch, 180-pound pitcher would probably begin his season at one of the organization’s Class-A affiliates.
“He’s a little older guy now, but he’s got a really good arm and showed three pitches with a mid-90s fastball,” McLeod said. “So we’re just going to baby-step it and see where he is. Once he’s ready to get out of here, we’ll certainly put him in a starting role somewhere, just to build up his innings.”
Baseball America – which first reported Rivero’s deal – projected his potential as a middle reliever and pointed out that he played with Gerardo Concepcion in Cuba’s Serie Nacional for Industriales.
Remember that at this time last year, the Cubs were high on Concepcion, who got $6 million guaranteed in a five-year, major-league contract. The left-hander struggled to make the adjustments and went 2-6 with a 7.39 ERA in 12 starts at Class-A Peoria last season.
Concepcion – who turned 21 last month – cleared waivers last December and was outrighted to Class-A Kane County.
Soler is years away from Wrigley Field, but the 21-year-old outfielder has so far exceeded the hype, even while showing the rawness that comes from essentially missing out on two years of development time in actual games.
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“When you make that kind of investment (in) a corner guy, you’re putting your faith in the offense,” McLeod said. “You’re saying this guy is going to be an offensive force, which we still believe he will be. The thing that’s been to this point so gratifying is seeing his work ethic and his makeup and how he gets along with his teammates. (It’s) how hard he works on his defense, (his) throwing (and) his baserunning. He really pays attention.
“Seeing him in the Dominican – when he was going around to the complexes – I did not get that part of his game at all because I didn’t see him read and react like that. Now, he also was hitting a lot of home runs, so he didn’t have to run the bases a lot. But from what we’ve seen of Jorge, this is a guy who really cares about every aspect of his game.”
Manager Dale Sveum also came away pleasantly surprised by Soler’s instincts. Soler hit .222 in the Cactus League with 13 strikeouts in 36 at-bats and will open the season at Class-A Daytona. But there’s no denying the athleticism, strong arm and 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame.
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Alfonso Soriano left Soler with this message: Keep working hard. Don’t get spoiled by the money. Lead by example in minor-league camp.
“He’s an engaging guy with a great smile,” McLeod said of Soler. “Maybe eventually he’ll become more – not rah-rah-ish – but more vocal (as) he gets more comfortable with the language.”
This global strategy certainly doesn’t make the Cubs unique, seeing as how aggressive bids for Yu Darvish (Texas Rangers) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (Los Angeles Dodgers) weren’t nearly enough to add the Japanese star and the Korean left-hander to their rotation. The World Baseball Classic showed the game’s not just America’s pastime.
But if the Cubs are right on some of these bets, the payoffs could be huge.