ST. LOUIS – When the playoff ride finally ended for the Cubs last October, Jorge Soler told Dave Martinez: “This is the guy I want to be. This is the guy I should be.”
The St. Louis Cardinals witnessed that monster performance in the National League divisional round, watching Soler become the first player in major-league history to reach base safely in his first nine postseason plate appearances.
This is what the Cubs envisioned when they won the bidding war in the summer of 2012 and finalized a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract: Soler hitting two homers, driving in four runs and drawing six walks in those four pressure-packed games against the Cardinals.
As manager Joe Maddon’s bench coach, Martinez has to put out fires in the clubhouse, use his bilingual skills and sometimes tell players what they might not want to hear.
In this case, Martinez recalled this week at Busch Stadium, “I (told Soler): ‘Absolutely, no question.’ The next thing you got to ask yourself is: ‘Why?’
“That’s what we’re doing now with him, making sure that he understands that you are that guy. There’s no ‘can’ or ‘will.’ You are that guy. Believe it – and that guy will happen.”
The Cubs are going with positive reinforcement after Kyle Schwarber’s season-ending knee injuries created an opportunity in left field for Soler, who admitted he drifted at times before finding a higher level of concentration during the playoffs.
“He’s getting there,” Maddon said. “His focus is improving. He’s understanding what it takes to be a regular player on the major-league level. The talent is prodigious. We all know that. But he needs to understand the mental side of this thing. And he’s working very hard at it. I give him credit.”
There are certain matchups where the Cubs will sit Soler and Maddon likes to keep everyone involved anyway. The breaks might help keep Soler healthy after a series of injuries limited him to only 151 minor-league games between 2012 and 2014.
Maddon also sees Matt Szczur as a late-inning defensive replacement for Soler, who isn’t quite comfortable making plays at the wall and sometimes gets caught in between, not sure when to stay back and when to charge the ball.
Soler – who had a reputation for being a patient hitter with a plan as an amateur player coming out of Cuba – is hitting .200 (8-for-40) with two homers and six walks against 11 strikeouts through 14 games.
“The biggest thing for him is accepting his walks,” Martinez said. “If he starts doing that consistently, we really feel like he’s going to hit and the power’s going to come. People see him and they (project) with that tremendous physique. But in reality, he’s still very young (24) and he’s learning.
“He’s got so much potential to do so many different things. We’re just excited that he’s actually now really focusing on taking his walks and swinging at pitches that he can hit.”
The Cardinals know what that could mean if Soler gets locked in again hitting behind Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.
“(When) you talk about the way (our) lineup is – the relentless at-bats – that’s a mental component,” Maddon said. “That’s not physical. You can stay in the cage as long as you want – or take as many swings as you want – that ain’t gonna matter.
“It’s about what you’re thinking and those are really well-thought-out at-bats by our group. And we got to get George (going) because he’s very capable of that. We’ve seen it in the past.
“If we get him there with those really strong mental at-bats, the sky’s the limit for him.”