Whatever day you picked in the Kris Bryant pool, the Cubs already have a 23-year-old slugger with superstar potential in the heart of their lineup.
Jorge Soler doesn’t have the same marketing juice or crossover appeal yet — and Bryant Watch is the social-media gift that keeps on giving — but the Cuban outfielder is quietly drawing comparisons that would sound ridiculous if he didn’t have so much natural talent.
Manager Joe Maddon described Soler as a Vladimir Guerrero with plate discipline. Maddon saw Guerrero’s 2004 MVP season up close as the Anaheim Angels bench coach.
No. 1 starter Jon Lester mentioned Soler in the same sentence as Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, two power hitters who helped him win a World Series ring with the 2007 Boston Red Sox.
Bench coach Dave Martinez played next to Andre Dawson during that 1987 MVP season on the North Side, sees the same strong throws from right field and called Soler “Baby Hawk.”
By Friday, the Cubs will have gained the extra year of club control over Bryant after stashing Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect at Triple-A Iowa for the service-time bonus. Soler doesn’t have his own billboard across the street from the Wrigley Field marquee, but he’s just as integral to The Plan.
At some point, a team is going to bet big on the wrong player coming out of Cuba, a next frontier for Major League Baseball, and be stuck with a huge mistake on its books.
But it is becoming clear that Soler is not that far off from the countrymen — White Sox slugger Jose Abreu and Los Angeles Dodgers sensation Yasiel Puig — he noticed in last summer’s All-Star Game. Soler used that as motivation — I’m as good as those guys — while fatherhood gave him a different sense of drive.
“I believe everything is coming together,” Soler said through translator/coach Franklin Font.
This is only a snapshot of what should be a long, productive career. But between the end of last year — and the beginning of this season — Soler is hitting .297 with seven homers, 27 RBI and a .920 OPS through his first 32 games in The Show.
“His power is just ridiculous, how he’s able to cover a lot of the plate,” Lester said. “He’s so big. He’s so strong. He doesn’t have to swing hard to hit the ball out.
“He’s so young. He’s so raw. He’s got a long ways to go and it’s pretty impressive what he can do right now. Once he plays this game a little bit longer, he’ll figure some things out as far as being a better hitter.
“It obviously helps when you have Manny Ramirez in the clubhouse, in his ear all the time. He reminds me a little bit of Manny, a little bit of David. Just that raw power — you don’t see it a lot, especially from the right side.”
That’s why the Cubs made Soler a priority in the first few weeks of the Theo Epstein administration, ultimately signing him to a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract in the summer of 2012 before a new collective bargaining agreement severely restricted the international market.
Soler’s deal allows him to opt into the arbitration system, and his production comes in a country where he doesn’t really know the language, and at a time when offense is suffocating across the game.
“He’s a smart kid,” All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro said. “The best part is he’s a really good listener. Everything you say, he listens (and) he adjusts.”
Soler’s intuitive feeling is even more impressive when you consider he missed about two years of game action during the odyssey that took him defecting from Cuba to training in the Dominican Republic to establishing residency in Haiti to finally gaining clearance to sign in the United States.
“He really understands what he’s doing at the plate,” Maddon said. “He’ll take borderline pitches and sometimes it maybe looks like he’s annoyed with the umpire a little bit.
“My point is he just knows his strike zone. And if he thought that pitch was off — I’m not swinging at that pitch. He’ll cover it with two strikes if he has to. But less than two strikes, I like that he’s not giving in to the pitcher’s pitch.”
Maddon made a comparison to another former MVP — Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto — while explaining the way Soler can drive the ball to all fields.
“He’s got a really, really wonderful approach for a young man,” Maddon said. “That’s why Votto hits so well. These guys have a good approach. Everybody wants to talk physical mechanics, but these guys make adjustments.
“(Soler’s) thinking it through, and he’s not trying to just do one thing all the time.”
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Soler got caught in a rare moment of hesitation during Monday’s two-homer game against the Reds, a little nervous and not sure when to step out of the dugout for a Wrigley Field curtain call.
“Regardless of the fact that he’s big and strong and all that stuff,” Maddon said, “I think sometimes we equate physical size with maybe maturity or understanding the ways of this country.
“Just imagine us going to Cuba and trying to be successful at that age in a particular profession. There’s going to be a lot of discomfort, even if we’re doing well. He’s got all these things to deal with.”
The Cubs defended Soler when the Florida State League suspended him for his role in a bat-grabbing, bench-clearing incident with advanced Class-A Daytona in 2013, saying it was an out-of-character moment.
There’s also been this asterisk attached to Soler’s game: *If he stays healthy. He played only 151 games in the minors across parts of the last three seasons, another sign that he might just be scratching the surface of his potential.
A series of hamstring injuries forced the Cubs to try to rewire Soler’s running stride and restructure his body during last year’s rehab stay at the team’s Arizona complex, and then carefully manage his Cactus League schedule this spring.
Once the initial wave of Bryant-mania passes through Chicago, you get the feeling Soler won’t be flying under the radar much longer.
“He’s a great kid,” Martinez said. “He works hard. He wants to win. And guys love him in the clubhouse. He’s like a big teddy bear. But when the games start, he’s a totally different guy. He takes every pitch to heart — and every play out in the outfield to heart — and he works his butt off.”