PITTSBURGH – More than five hours before first pitch, Jorge Soler took early batting practice on Tuesday afternoon in an empty PNC Park while a group of Cubs coaches watched the young Cuban hitter.
The Cubs unveiled a different outfield look for that night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, trying to jumpstart Soler by batting him second and putting him in left, while keeping Dexter Fowler in center and moving Kris Bryant to right.
The team with the best record in baseball can’t be in scramble mode in the first week of May, but the Cubs are almost burning through the depth they acquired this winter.
Jason Heyward is still dealing with the sore right wrist that’s been bothering him since early April. An MRI on Matt Szczur’s right hamstring revealed a strain that landed him on the disabled list. The Cubs promoted Ryan Kalish – a guy who planned to play independent ball before signing a minor-league deal in March – from Triple-A Iowa.
Manager Joe Maddon has been asked about Soler – who began the day hitting .186 with a .591 OPS – in the context of trading for pitching, losing playing time with the Fowler signing and getting another chance after Kyle Schwarber’s season-ending knee surgery.
So Maddon didn’t feel like looking for a deeper meaning to Soler’s opportunity this time.
“It’s Tuesday, that’s it, I swear,” Maddon said. “Because you got other options to deal with. There’s different ways to look at this. I’m going to continue to try to do my best to keep everybody solvent. That’s the best way I can answer that. George obviously has prodigious power ability, so we’ll see how it plays.
“But I’m not going to make any promises.”
Beyond Bryant’s versatility as an All-Star third baseman, the Cubs also have super-utility guys Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez with the ability to toggle between the infield and the outfield.
It’s a remarkable comeback story for Kalish, another former Boston Red Sox prospect with connections to Theo Epstein’s front office.
Kalish struggled to stay healthy at Fenway Park and eventually recovered from cervical fusion surgery – performed by the same doctor who did the neck procedure for Peyton Manning – to make the Opening Day roster for Rick Renteria’s Cubs in 2014.
Kalish spent last year hanging out in Southern California, thinking about life after baseball and watching old buddies like Anthony Rizzo perform in the playoffs.
“I needed to keep trying,” Kalish said. “There were points where people were saying (stuff), even close friends wondering like: ‘Hey, maybe it’s time to move on?’ But I just couldn’t have that.
“I was going (to independent ball) if this didn’t come. The crazy part is that season hasn’t even started yet. It starts in like two weeks. But with all this developing, it just puts it all in perspective. It makes me appreciate what I have.”
The Cubs don’t want to rush Albert Almora from Iowa, even though they know their 2012 first-round pick could play above-average defense in The Show right now. Almora just turned 22, isn’t on the 40-man roster yet and has spent about a month on the Triple-A level.
Until this setback, Szczur had maximized his opportunity after the Cubs ruled out Shane Victorino (calf) for the Opening Day roster. Victorino is still working into game shape at the team’s Arizona complex and getting closer to joining the Triple-A club.
Szczur, who’s out of minor-league options, went from a bubble player to a key contributor, hitting .367 with two homers and 10 RBI in 34 plate appearances and becoming a late-game defensive replacement for Soler.
“It’s always bad timing,” Szczur said.