We’re a little more than a month into the season and it’s already clear the Chicago White Sox’s Jose Abreu is this year’s Cuban sensation.
In 2012 it was Yoenis Cespedes. Last year, it was Yasiel Puig. But once Abreu’s reign of rookie production comes to an end this fall, which Cuban player is the next in line to become a star in 2015?
The popular pick is 22-year-old Jorge Soler, who is currently on the seven-day disabled list for Double-A Tennessee, the Chicago Cubs’ affiliate in the Southern League. Signed to a nine-year contract in June, 2012, around the same time that the Los Angeles Dodgers and Puig reached a deal, Soler’s development in the minor leagues has been slowed by injuries, but it hasn’t softened his projection as an All-Star-caliber right fielder at the highest level.
However, even though Soler has enormous potential and represents a big part of the Cubs’ wave of the future, he shouldn’t be expected to make an immediate impact in the major leagues.
Soler emerged as a major-league prospect in 2010, starring for Cuba’s bronze-medal-winning team at the 2010 World Junior Championships, and he defected from the island in 2011 after an initial attempt was unsuccessful. The Cubs were all over Soler once he was cleared to sign by both the U.S. government and Major League Baseball in June, signing the then-20-year-old to a nine-year, $30 million contract that included a franchise-record $6 million signing bonus.
The Cubs assigned Soler to the rookie-level Arizona League in July to get his feet wet, and, as hoped, he quickly proved to be too advanced for the level, posting a .717 OPS with two home runs and eight stolen bases in 14 games. More importantly, he showed minimal rust in his stateside debut after the long layoff.
Soler’s immediate success earned him a promotion to Low-A Peoria in early August, where he continued to open eyes with his advanced all-around play against more advanced competition. While he played in only 20 games before the conclusion of Peoria’s regular season, Soler offered a glimpse of his huge upside by batting .338/.398/.513 with five doubles, three homers, 15 RBI and four stolen bases.
Soler began the 2013 season on fire at High-A Daytona—playing on the same team as top prospect Javier Baez—with a .435 batting average (10-for-23) and two home runs in the team’s first six contests. However, he would then make the headlines for the wrong reason: During Daytona’s game on April 10, Soler was ejected after charging the opposing team’s dugout while wielding a bat. He was subsequently suspended five games and fined an undisclosed amount by the Florida State League.
Soler would spend the next two months at Daytona before suffering a season-ending injury on June 13, when a foul ball off his left leg resulted in a fractured tibia. The organization remained hopeful he’d return before the end of the regular season, but announced in mid-August that he was officially done for the year and would participate in the Arizona Fall League.
After nearly five months on the shelf recovering from the injury, Soler finally returned to action in the Arizona Fall League playing for the Mesa Solar Sox. His time off was evident while playing against the league’s impressive crop of top-ranked prospects, as Soler appeared rusty and struggled with consistency on all sides of the ball.
Overall, he finished his AFL campaign with a .271/.311/.376 batting line, one home run, 14 RBI and 21/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 90 plate appearances. While he didn’t exactly make up for the lost time with a standout, bounce-back fall, Soler proved that he had fully recovered from the fractured tibia by playing in 20 games.
|Jorge Soler's Career Statistics|
The Cubs invited Soler to major league spring training this year, but the team’s need to resolve several outfield-based roster battles led to him appearing in only nine games, usually coming off the bench in the middle to late innings. Still, the 22-year-old managed to post an .808 OPS with a triple and RBI before he was optioned to Double-A Tennessee on March 12.
Soler’s campaign at Tennessee this year began inauspiciously, as he roped a double in his first at-bat but aggravated a hamstring injury running to second base. He underwent an MRI the following day that confirmed a hamstring strain. Soler has been rehabbing and training at the team’s facility in Mesa, Arizona, according to general manager Jed Hoyer (via The Associated Press), and “the reports have been good.” Hoyer hopes Soler will soon be able to rejoin Tennessee.
At 6’4”, 215 pounds, Soler is a physically strong right-handed hitter with a mature frame that requires little projection. The ball absolutely jumps off his bat thanks to blinding bat speed and an explosive swing, and he’s able to get the barrel on more pitches than he probably should with excellent plate coverage. Meanwhile, his extension and lift after contact generates exceptional backspin carry and suggests the potential for multiple 20-plus home runs in his prime.
However, Soler’s swing can be rushed and choppy at times due to a hitch at the height of his load before initiating his weight transfer. While the issue didn’t hinder his success in the low minors, a testament to Soler’s enormous strength and explosive athleticism, it will need to be ironed out as he moves up the ladder and faces more advanced pitching.
Soler’s approach has been better than expected as a professional, and he’s demonstrated the ability to hit when behind in the count. Based on his 44/27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 325 career plate appearances at full-season levels, Soler’s game will likely feature a modest amount of swing-and-miss, but not enough to question his offensive ceiling.
The 22-year-old’s greatest weakness is his fringy pitch recognition, especially in regard to secondary offerings. Soler struggles to pick up spin out of the pitcher’s hand and at times appears to be guessing at the plate, often chasing pitches well out of the strike zone in a favorable count.
Soler moves well in the outfield in spite of his muscular build, but he’ll likely lose a step or two with physical maturation. However, even if his run tool grades as a 45 or 50 (on the 20-80 scouting scale) later in his career, Soler should still cover plenty of ground with his long, gliding strides. Lastly, Soler’s plus arm strength is a perfect fit in right field at the major league level.
Beyond his physical tools, Soler’s makeup has raised several red flags over the past two seasons. In addition to the previously mentioned bat-wielding incident, Soler was also benched during a game in late April 2013 after he twice failed to run hard.
When I saw Soler play in last year’s Arizona Fall League, there were multiple instances when he clearly chose not to run full speed after putting a ball in play. He did the same thing on a few dropped third strikes. In my opinion, he looked like a guy getting paid big league bucks who believes he should be in the major leagues, which was disconcerting considering he obviously has several developmental hurdles to clear before getting the call.
Soler will return to Double-A Tennessee once he’s cleared medically, and he’ll likely spend most, if not all, the season at the level. For the Cubs, it’s more important that the 22-year-old—especially after playing only parts of the last two seasons—receive everyday at-bats against quality, Southern League pitching this season rather than rush his development and try to force success in the major leagues.
If the Cubs decide to promote Soler later this season—which is entirely possible considering he’s already on the team’s 40-man roster—it will be because he’s earned it. It will also help his chances if both Javier Baez and Kris Bryant are already in the major leagues, as the organization has made an attempt in previous years to overlap the developmental timelines of all three players.
Yet, the Cubs don’t have an obvious incentive to rush him up the ladder this season, or any of their top-ranked prospects for that matter.
Soler should take over as the team’s everyday right fielder when he arrives (which should be for good), which should happen during the first half of the 2015 season. If he comes close to reaching his offensive ceiling, Soler should offer All-Star-caliber production in his prime seasons, batting .270-plus with roughly 25 home runs and double-digit stolen bases from the heart of the Cubs’ lineup. However, that’s a best-case scenario, as there’s still a sizeable gap between Soler’s present ability and ultimate potential.