PEORIA, Ariz. – It is the question that has no answer. No one knows when Jorge Soler and Javier Baez will be ready for The Show.
That won’t stop the media from asking Cubs players, coaches and executives. The fans that just sat through a 101-loss season and a century-plus championship drought certainly want to know. Everyone from baseball ops to the marketing department to the blogosphere has pinned their hopes on Soler and Baez.
The long look ended on a sunny, 80-degree Monday afternoon at Peoria Sports Complex, with Soler/Baez batting third/fourth in a 5-2 win over the San Diego Padres. Maybe that’s what the future will look like, but their time in big-league camp is over now.
Alfonso Soriano already sent the message to Soler, who has a major-league deal and a $30 million portfolio and was optioned to advanced Class-A Daytona (where Baez will likely be his teammate).
Soler recalled this conversation with the $136 million man through interpreter/staff assistant Franklin Font:
“Sori told me: No matter what kind of money you get, whatever your signing bonus is, you still got to work hard every single day. And when you go down to the minor leagues, you got to be the example for the young kids.”
While getting used to a completely different lifestyle, Soler likes watching the Miami Heat and listening to music on his Beats by Dr. Dre headphones.
Soler, who turned 21 last month, essentially missed two years of game action as he defected from Cuba, worked out in the Dominican Republic, established residency in Haiti and gained clearance in the United States.
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The Cubs can dream on Soler’s 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame as well as his strong arm from right field. He hit .222 in the Cactus League with 13 strikeouts in 36 at-bats, showing how much development time he’s missed.
“Soler is just so raw,” manager Dale Sveum said. “He just needs to play. There is some special stuff. (This guy’s) already polished defensively (and has) instincts. Now the guy just needs to see all those changeups and sliders and all that. He just needs the at-bats.”
Baez, 20, came into camp with only 311 professional at-bats on his resume, but still homered six times this spring, including the walk-off shot he called against Team Japan. The ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft continues to draw comparisons to Gary Sheffield.
Sveum, an old hitting coach, knows what he’s talking about. The Milwaukee Brewers invested first-round picks in potential franchise shortstops in 1982 (Sveum) and 1986 (Sheffield).
“You don’t want to put labels on people, but it’s the same bat speed that I saw Sheffield have at 20 years old,” Sveum said. “It’s all there. I think Sheff was a little more polished at that age as a complete hitter, because he was able to lay off pitches a lot better than Baez right now.
“But Sheff had about 1,000-plus at-bats before he got to the big leagues, too. (So), yeah, it’s that kind of bat speed. It’s that kind of violence that goes through the strike zone. It’s one of those special bat speeds that you just don’t see very often.”
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Edwin Jackson has seen this movie before, which is why he didn’t want to fuel the hype or pile on with more expectations.
Jackson looked sharp on Monday, limiting the Padres to one run on three hits across six efficient innings. He didn’t want to project what he’s seen the past few weeks onto the timeframe of his four-year, $52 million contract and think about how fast the young core could come together.
“It’s hard to say, man,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen every situation, almost. I’ve seen guys like Chris Sale spend almost like two weeks in the minor leagues and be in the big leagues. You just never know in this game. When their number gets called, I’m sure they’ll be ready.”
[Watch: Jackson progressing after Monday start]
Jackson made his big-league debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers on his 20th birthday (Sept. 9, 2003). He’s pitched for seven teams, including the worst-to-first Tampa Bay Rays (2008), the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals (2011) and the Washington Nationals built around young stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
“I wouldn’t take it back,” Jackson said. “Who knows when the right time is or not? The time I got to struggle – it was in the limelight. You go through the minor leagues and you fly through, you get put on a pedestal. So when you do struggle, it’s in the public eye (and) then it’s just exposed. Everything I went through made me who I am today. I’ve been at the very bottom and very top and everywhere in between.”
Cubs officials have shown patience and a three-dimensional approach to developing prospects, so they aren’t going to rush Soler and Baez through the system. But all these great expectations mean this was also probably the last happy-to-be-here camp.