GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Jorge Soler isn’t quite yesterday’s news. But all the buzz about the “Core Four” this spring has revolved around Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora.
The Soler chase became the big story in the fall of 2011, just after the Theo Epstein administration took over at Clark and Addison. The Cubs closed the deal with a nine-year, $30 million contract on June 30, 2012, just before a new collective bargaining agreement changed the international game.
Soler recently turned 22, and it’s not hard to find stories with anonymous scouts ripping the Cuban outfielder. He wound up playing only 55 games at advanced Class-A Daytona last season, after fouling a ball off his left shin during spring training and developing a stress fracture in his leg.
The Cubs told Soler to take it easy and not run too hard during the Arizona Fall League, fueling a perception. He had already missed about two years of game action after defecting from Cuba, working out in the Dominican Republic, establishing residency in Haiti and finally getting cleared to sign in the United States.
“I’m sure he is (playing catch-up), but I don’t think he thinks about it,” manager Rick Renteria said Thursday. “He just goes out there every day. As a consequence of downtime, sure, there’s probably a little lag. But you wouldn’t see it in his approach and his mentality and how he goes about doing his stuff.”
Cubs officials have insisted Soler is a good kid, someone who just lost it in a moment of frustration while grabbing a bat and instigating a bench-clearing incident last April, getting suspended by the Florida State League.
Renteria has watched Soler on the back fields and notices the work habits. The contract has already put a target on Soler’s back, and it’s hard to miss the guy standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 215 pounds.
“He’s very diligent in both his batting practices and his work in the outfield,” Renteria said. “The guys really do bear down and play balls off the bat consistently. His routes are clean. He’s a good-looking outfielder. Obviously, he’s a good-looking athlete. Potentially, he looks like he’s going to be a really good hitter.”
Soler hasn’t really stood out or looked particularly sharp this spring. He drew a walk and got caught trying to steal second base in the eighth inning of Thursday’s 1-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians at Goodyear Ballpark.
Soler’s 0-for-5 with a strikeout in the Cactus League. He went 0-for-1 with a walk in an intrasquad scrimmage. He went 0-for-4 with a strikeout and got hit by a pitch during a B game against the San Francisco Giants. Renteria says don’t read too much into that now.
“We’re watching them to see how their approaches are at the plate,” Renteria said. “Obviously, everybody wants positive end results. But if their at-bats are coming together – where you see that they’re swinging at good pitches and taking bad ones and working at-bats through that process – then I think there are things to be excited about.
“And then there are days that they’re not going to have good at-bats, so you talk about those and what were the approaches and what was the thinking going on in those situations.”
The Cubs hired Renteria, in part, for his bilingual skills and ability to connect with the wave of Latin players coming through the system. The first-year manager has spoken with Soler, who could begin this season back at Daytona.
“We talk,” Renteria said. “We all have little conversations, whether it’s in my office just to have a chat or whether it’s in the dugout. He’s kind of quiet, in general, I think. But I get a chuckle or a smile out of him every now and then.”
Soler couldn’t play in last summer’s All-Star Futures Game because he was injured. He’s hit .288 with 13 homers and 60 RBI in 89 professional games. Even with all the missing pieces to his development, Baseball America still ranked him as the No. 41 overall prospect in the game. This year is pivotal if the Cubs are going to get a good return on their investment.