The question about whether or not Jorge Soler would make a playoff roster morphed into how the Cubs could keep him out of the lineup in October.
No one could have scripted how the Cubs got to this point, but this is what Theo Epstein’s front office had in mind when Soler got $30 million guaranteed in the summer of 2012.
The Cubs are on the verge of offseason planning and free-agent shopping after Tuesday night’s 5-2 loss to the New York Mets at Wrigley Field, now trailing three games to zero in a best-of-seven National League Championship Series that began with so much hope.
Whatever happens next, the future is still bright on the North Side (with no guarantees this core group will ever be four wins away from the World Series again). Back in spring training, manager Joe Maddon compared Soler to a Vladimir Guerrero with plate discipline, the type of talent that would get drafted No. 1 overall if the Cuban outfielder had been born in the United States.
After an up-and-down year, Soler turned it on in the postseason, getting on base in his first nine plate appearances, the longest stretch in major-league history. While he didn’t look comfortable in ski-mask weather at Citi Field, he doesn’t seem to mind playing beneath the bright lights of October.
After getting shut down by Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard over the weekend, the Cubs faced Jacob deGrom, arguably the best of the young power pitchers the Mets have in their arsenal. You didn’t need to be part of Maddon’s “Geek Department” to find a spot for Soler in the Game 3 lineup at Clark and Addison, where the temperature hit 72 degrees by first pitch at 7:07 p.m.
“He’s the guy that can put the ball in the seats,” Maddon said.
Soler destroyed deGrom’s 96-mph fastball in the fourth inning, sending it out into the center-field seats for his third postseason home run. Soler drove another deGrom fastball to the warning track in right field in the seventh inning.
“He’s young, he’s making adjustments culturally,” Maddon said. “Professionally, he still lacks the experience. There’s a lot of work to do on defense and base-running, et cetera. But there’s not many guys in the world that have that kind of power. And I say ‘The World.’”
This will be easy to forget in all the autopsies of this playoff run. And Dexter Fowler did have to bail out Soler on that awkward diving defensive play in the sixth inning, alertly raising his arms on a ball that bounced into the ivy. But Soler has raised his game in the playoffs, hitting .400 (6-for-15) with five RBI and six walks.
Remember, Soler missed roughly two years of game action/development time during the process that led him to defect from Cuba and finally gain clearance to sign that major-league contract.
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Remember, Soler played only 34, 55 and 62 games across the last three minor-league seasons. Those injury concerns followed him into this year, forcing him to miss almost two months with a sprained ankle and a strained oblique.
Soler looked more like a role player (10 homers, .723 OPS in 101 games) during the regular season than the dynamic offensive force from last year’s audition (five homers, .903 OPS in 24 games).
At the age of 23, Soler should only be scratching the surface of his potential, giving the Cubs another young power hitter at a time when offense is at a premium.
“From what I’m hearing, what we’re seeing now is what the projections looked like originally,” Maddon said. “He did the same thing at the end of last year where he really went off. So when I saw him in spring training, as a scout, oh my goodness, he’s a scout’s dream. There’s no question about that. We just have to pull it out of him.”