Cubs

Cubs: Jorge Soler trying to live up to his own expectations

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Cubs: Jorge Soler trying to live up to his own expectations

PHOENIX – Jorge Soler isn’t living up to his own high expectations.

That speaks to Soler’s enormous potential, the perceptions that came with his $30 million contract, the instant impact made by other Cuban power hitters and the runaway hype surrounding seemingly every Cubs prospect. 

“So far, I don’t feel good about what I’m doing,” Soler said through interpreter/coach Franklin Font. “I expect more from me.”

Soler leaned against a wall before Saturday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, meeting with a small group of reporters in the tunnel that leads from Chase Field’s visiting clubhouse to the dugout.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs sticking with Hector Rondon as their closer]

By the eighth inning, Soler showed why the Cubs think he will be a difference-maker this season and beyond. He hammered a 92 mph fastball from Arizona lefty reliever Oliver Perez into the right-field gap for the game-tying, two-run double in an eventual 9-6 victory.   

Soler is still a productive player who began the day leading all National League rookies with 43 hits, putting up a .725 OPS and staying healthy enough to play in every game this season.   

Soler also led all NL hitters with 59 strikeouts, which seems out of character for someone who developed a reputation for being such a polished hitter with an advanced understanding of the strike zone.

After seeing the pitch right before his big hit, Soler had actually started heading toward first base, thinking he had just drawn a walk.

“I want to be more consistent offensively,” Soler said.

Soler admitted he’s been getting more breaking balls than last season, chasing too many sliders in the dirt and not recognizing enough pitches he can drive. He’s homered once since his two-homer game against the Cincinnati Reds on April 13 (when the Blackhawks hadn’t even started their playoff run yet).

“We’ve been working with him regarding just approach and thinking different things at the plate,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Typically, he’s that kind of guy that you have to be patient with. You can see the talent is awesome. You just have to wait for it all to show up. You can’t get frustrated. You can’t get upset with him. You can’t get annoyed with him.

“His personality presents in a certain way. And I think when he’s going well, that method’s going to really benefit him. He’s the kind of guy when he’s not going well that you’re going to pick out a lot of different things and wish he were better at (them) – or more demonstrative. But when he’s going well, it’s: Hey, this guy is always chill. He’s always calm in a tight moment.

“When it shows up, it’s going to be really good for a long time.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Buy a Jorge Soler jersey here]

The Cubs have to feel better about Soler’s durability since injury issues have been the biggest question marks hovering over the 23-year-old outfielder.

Soler credited the team’s training staff and a different strength and conditioning program. He said his legs have been feeling so good that he’s been extra aggressive running the bases. 

“I heard all the stuff,” Maddon said. “As guys get older, too, they do start to understand how to take care of themselves a little bit better.

“We’ve talked to him a lot about it. I think it comes down to the individual more than anything. Sometimes, there are bodies that are predisposed to breaking down. They just are, for whatever reason. But you try to do your best in regards to nutrition, training methods, whether it’s stretching, weightlifting, strength and conditioning, whatever. So far, it’s worked out pretty good.”

Remember, Soler played in 151 minor-league games combined across parts of the last three seasons. He estimated a typical season for an amateur player in Cuba would last about 36 games. He said he’s not worried about the grind of a 162-game marathon.

“I feel good physically,” Soler said. “I don’t think I’ll have any problems like that.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: