Cubs

Cubs still see Jorge Soler as ‘a monster player in the making’

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Cubs still see Jorge Soler as ‘a monster player in the making’

Even as the strikeouts keep piling up, Cubs manager Joe Maddon still sees Jorge Soler as “a monster player in the making.”

That’s what the Cubs had in mind when they gave the Cuban outfielder a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract in the summer of 2012. Maddon has compared Soler’s tools to someone who would have been a No. 1 overall draft pick if he had grown up in the United States (though 6-foot-4, 240-pound athletic freaks don’t really play baseball in this country anymore).

What’s supposed to separate Soler is an advanced feel for hitting, the polished approach that allowed him to put up a .903 OPS during his 24-game audition with the Cubs last season.

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Soler went into Thursday’s 6-5 win over the New York Mets leading the National League in strikeouts. He’s up to 50 strikeouts after a 1-for-4 afternoon at Wrigley Field that included his 16th run scored.

“You got to organize your strike zone,” Maddon said. “The comparisons in spring training – I was talking about him being Vladimir (Guerrero) with more patience at the plate. And there’s an old scouting axiom: If a guy had done that before, he’s going to do it again.

“So I believe he’s going to do it again. Right now, he’s just off a little bit and we have to keep preaching that patience.”

Soler has only homered once since that two-homer game on April 13 against the Cincinnati Reds. He’s already had 17 multiple-strikeout games this season.

Soler also began the day batting .313 in May with a .784 OPS, leading all NL rookies with 35 hits. He just turned 23 years old in spring training.  

“He’s just going through a rough patch right now,” Maddon said. “Sometimes you equate big people as being more mature as opposed to their age or their birth certificate. This is a young, big man that’s struggling on the major-league level a little bit.

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“Of course, he’s going to be dejected or disappointed or whatever. He’s going to be fine, though. This guy’s talent is prodigious. He’s going to come out on the other side of this. In the meantime, you got to support him. You got to talk to him. You got to coach him.

“And eventually he comes back out on the other side. This is a player every organization would like to have their hands on right now.”

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.”