Cubs

Cubs: Jorge Soler, Ryan Kalish and what the outfield picture looks like now

Cubs: Jorge Soler, Ryan Kalish and what the outfield picture looks like now

PITTSBURGH – More than five hours before first pitch, Jorge Soler took early batting practice on Tuesday afternoon in an empty PNC Park while a group of Cubs coaches watched the young Cuban hitter.

The Cubs unveiled a different outfield look for that night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, trying to jumpstart Soler by batting him second and putting him in left, while keeping Dexter Fowler in center and moving Kris Bryant to right.

The team with the best record in baseball can’t be in scramble mode in the first week of May, but the Cubs are almost burning through the depth they acquired this winter.

Jason Heyward is still dealing with the sore right wrist that’s been bothering him since early April. An MRI on Matt Szczur’s right hamstring revealed a strain that landed him on the disabled list. The Cubs promoted Ryan Kalish – a guy who planned to play independent ball before signing a minor-league deal in March – from Triple-A Iowa.

Manager Joe Maddon has been asked about Soler – who began the day hitting .186 with a .591 OPS – in the context of trading for pitching, losing playing time with the Fowler signing and getting another chance after Kyle Schwarber’s season-ending knee surgery.

So Maddon didn’t feel like looking for a deeper meaning to Soler’s opportunity this time.

“It’s Tuesday, that’s it, I swear,” Maddon said. “Because you got other options to deal with. There’s different ways to look at this. I’m going to continue to try to do my best to keep everybody solvent. That’s the best way I can answer that. George obviously has prodigious power ability, so we’ll see how it plays.

“But I’m not going to make any promises.”

Beyond Bryant’s versatility as an All-Star third baseman, the Cubs also have super-utility guys Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez with the ability to toggle between the infield and the outfield.

It’s a remarkable comeback story for Kalish, another former Boston Red Sox prospect with connections to Theo Epstein’s front office.

Kalish struggled to stay healthy at Fenway Park and eventually recovered from cervical fusion surgery – performed by the same doctor who did the neck procedure for Peyton Manning – to make the Opening Day roster for Rick Renteria’s Cubs in 2014.

Kalish spent last year hanging out in Southern California, thinking about life after baseball and watching old buddies like Anthony Rizzo perform in the playoffs.

“I needed to keep trying,” Kalish said. “There were points where people were saying (stuff), even close friends wondering like: ‘Hey, maybe it’s time to move on?’ But I just couldn’t have that.

“I was going (to independent ball) if this didn’t come. The crazy part is that season hasn’t even started yet. It starts in like two weeks. But with all this developing, it just puts it all in perspective. It makes me appreciate what I have.”

The Cubs don’t want to rush Albert Almora from Iowa, even though they know their 2012 first-round pick could play above-average defense in The Show right now. Almora just turned 22, isn’t on the 40-man roster yet and has spent about a month on the Triple-A level.

Until this setback, Szczur had maximized his opportunity after the Cubs ruled out Shane Victorino (calf) for the Opening Day roster. Victorino is still working into game shape at the team’s Arizona complex and getting closer to joining the Triple-A club.

Szczur, who’s out of minor-league options, went from a bubble player to a key contributor, hitting .367 with two homers and 10 RBI in 34 plate appearances and becoming a late-game defensive replacement for Soler.

“It’s always bad timing,” Szczur said.

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”