Cubs

Cubs will face some interesting decisions with Jorge Soler

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Cubs will face some interesting decisions with Jorge Soler

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Jorge Soler’s name will almost certainly surface in trade rumors if – or when – the Cubs need to make a deal for pitching this summer.

The Cubs can’t afford to hand Soler 600 at-bats, let him learn on the job and hope he becomes more fluid in the outfield, the way they nurtured other young players during their rebuilding cycle.

Not when manager Joe Maddon has all these other options and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein was asked on Opening Day if this year will be judged a failure if the Cubs don’t win the World Series.

Soler as the designated hitter made sense for the season’s first two games against the Los Angeles Angels – so the Cubs could get him into a rhythm – and maybe even for his long-term future if an American League team can see the potential and offer the right kind of young pitcher.

“He’s not going to get lost,” Maddon said Tuesday at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. “I think you know me by now – it’s not about getting hits. He’s going to play – and he’s going to play well – during the course of the season.

“For him personally, the confidence component is really big.”

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The surprise Dexter Fowler signing in late February clearly impacted Soler, who got bumped from right field on the depth chart when Gold Glover Jason Heyward moved over from center. That puts Soler in a left-field timeshare with Kyle Schwarber on a team that has multiple players who can play multiple positions and wanted to upgrade the overall defense after getting swept by the New York Mets in last year’s National League Championship Series.

“He’s going to be more comfortable (in right field), no doubt,” Maddon said. “The biggest thing you have to remember when you’re playing on the corners is the ball is always going to move to the line.

“That’s the thing you just got to try to get a guy to understand. So in right field, he’s used to the ball going that way. Now all of a sudden, the ball’s going to go that way. A lefty’s going to slice it, a righty’s going to hook.

“If he can just get that (part down). It’s an easy thought, but how do you actually do it? I think as he wraps his mind around (that) on a consistent basis, he may end up being as comfortable as he was in right field.”

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There are pitching-rich teams like the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves that were interested in Soler when the Cubs gave the raw Cuban player a nine-year, $30 million contract in the summer of 2012 (though both franchises have since seen a restructuring in baseball leadership).

But the Cubs also saw what Soler did in a pressure situation last year, becoming the first player in major-league history to reach base safely in his first nine postseason plate appearances. That dynamic performance helped eliminate the St. Louis Cardinals in the divisional round.

“He’s the kind of guy that is just dripping with projection,” Maddon said. “It’s the kind of body everybody’s looking for in any major sport. He’s got a great arm. He runs well. I think you got this prodigious power. So if you’re a scout, there are a couple things working there.

“You describe the body and the power, but he’s young and he’s Latin, so you have to be a little bit patient here. Beyond the adjustment to the game itself is the cultural differences and the cultural adjustments that need to be made that can hold you back, whether it’s just socially or self-esteem-wise by being unable to communicate your thoughts as you would like.

“All these things factor in. So when it comes to young Latin players – especially a kid from Cuba – I think you have to be even a little bit more patient. He’s going to be a really good player and he’s still very young.”

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The Cubs also hope Soler, 24, will benefit from the coincidental return of hitting consultant Manny Ramirez, who skipped spring training because of family commitments and then joined the team in Southern California.

“Manny’s a very informed and good hitting coach,” Maddon said. “I’m not just talking about physical (stuff). Everybody (says): ‘Oh, you put your hands here.’ Manny talks hitting really well, and he talks to the mental mechanics more.

“That’s what really benefited Georgie last year. And I like (Manny’s) matter-of-factness – not just trying to make the kid like him. He’s trying to give him good information.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.