Forty games into his professional career, Jorge Soler wound up on Deadspin. That might be the last place in cyberspace the Cubs wanted to find their potential franchise player.
Imaginations ran wild on Twitter for a fan base and a press corps that has witnessed the Carlos Zambrano and Milton Bradley meltdowns in recent years. Those are unfair comparisons now, but this incident will shadow Soler as he tries to work his way up from Class-A Daytona to Clark and Addison.
The Cubs accepted the five-game suspension handed down by the Florida State League while insisting that the bench-clearing confrontation was an isolated incident. Standing in the back of the Wrigley Field press box, team president Theo Epstein defended the Cuban defector who signed a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract last summer.
“This is a great kid who’s already overcome a lot in his life and someone that we’re not worried about at all for the long haul,” Epstein said Thursday. “But it’s clear that he’s been thrust into a very high-profile situation very suddenly. And it’s our job as an organization to make sure he has the tools to make good decisions, even in the heat of the moment.”
Epstein indicated there was a “back and forth” throughout Wednesday night’s game in Daytona before Soler finally lost control once an opposing player said something about his family.
Epstein watched the clip and communicated with Soler over the phone through Alex Suarez, the team’s bilingual assistant director of player development and international operations. (The Cubs had installed cameras at their minor-league stadiums so club officials can access video on their laptops.) Soler got into it with Clearwater infielder Carlos Alonso after a slide into second base. Alonso landed on Soler awkwardly and both benches emptied.
Moments later, Soler grabbed a bat from the Daytona dugout and motioned toward the Clearwater side. He had to be restrained -– Cuban left-hander Frank Del Valle sprinted over -– as teammates and coaches defused the situation.
“There was no swinging of the bat whatsoever,” Epstein said. “There was no physical contact. There was no violent act.”
Epstein described Soler as “tremendously remorseful,” apologetic and having trouble sleeping the night before, up thinking about what he had done. The team president declined to directly answer a cryptic question about possible anger-management counseling, saying that would remain private between the player and the club.
“It’s our job to work with him,” Epstein said. “Just as we provide help for players on the field and with instruction, we have to provide them the proper tools to channel their emotions.
“Clearly, there’s a new challenge for us to embrace and Jorge to embrace and find a way to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Signing Soler became one of the top priorities during the first year of the Epstein administration, before a new collective bargaining agreement imposed severe restrictions on how much teams can spend on the foreign market.
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In the last talent grab, there was so much mystery surrounding Soler, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound five-tool outfielder. Now 21, he wound up missing almost two years of game action as he defected from Cuba, worked out in the Dominican Republic, established residency in Haiti and gained clearance to the United States.
Soler made a strong impression in spring training, putting on shows in batting practice and demonstrating surprisingly good instincts after that layoff. Through six games at Daytona, he had hit .435 with two homers and a 1.258 OPS.
“He seemed like a very poised young man that came to play every day,” manager Dale Sveum said. “Very quiet, very unassuming guy, but you could tell he had a lot of poise and he was very mature for his age.”
Epstein said Soler’s father is in the country, but the assimilation process clearly isn’t over yet.
“Jorge is probably dealing with more transition than anyone in our system, being in a new country, away from his family, away from his culture,” Epstein said. “So he’s adjusting to a lot of things. It’s not an excuse for what happened. It’s just a reminder of how important it is for us to support him and help him make these adjustments.”
Epstein inherited a relatively strong network in Latin America and believes in the background checks that compelled the Cubs to make that investment in Soler and put him front and center in their rebuilding plans.
“He’s very well-mannered, very respectful, very friendly,” Epstein said. “He keeps to himself for the most part, but has a quick smile and a good temperament. Now that it’s happened, we need to get ahead of it with him and just make sure we give him a framework to channel his emotions.”