Cubs

Cubs see Jorge Soler as a potential superstar in the making

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Cubs see Jorge Soler as a potential superstar in the making

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.

[MORE: Cubs: Joe Maddon will manage the great expectations for Kris Bryant]

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.

[RELATED: Cubs see Gold Glove/Andre Dawson potential in Jorge Soler]

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.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy a Jorge Soler jersey]

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.”

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

For the second time this season, Pedro Strop has added another chapter to the legend of El Mago.

And for at least the second documented time over the last few years, Strop also helped give Javy Baez the motivation needed to lift the Cubs to victory.

On an 0-2 pitch from Mets reliever Seth Lugo in the eighth inning, Baez smacked a 3-run homer into the right-field bleachers, notching the Cubs shortstop another curtain call and sending the 39,077 fans at Wrigley Field into euphoric bliss.

"That was big. He was so frustrated," said Strop, who picked up his 9th save in the 5-3 victory. "When I was walking to the 'pen, he was so frustrated after that first strikeout [against Jacob deGrom]. He was like, 'He's not throwing fastballs, just sliders!' I was like, 'Bro, it's good that you know that. So go up with another plan. Do your thing. You're gonna win this ballgame.'"

Baez's 100th career homer accomplished exactly that and in doing so, changed the entire tone and tenor of the first weekend of summer on Chicago's North Side.

There's no way the Cubs wanted to go into a four-game set with the contending Atlanta Braves after having just dropped three of four to a hapless Mets team that is melting down inside the clubhouse. It also would've been the Cubs' ninth loss in their 13 games, but Baez's clutch blast helped them salvage a series split and maintain sole possession of first place entering a new week of baseball.

"That's the last thing you want to do is lose another one," said Cole Hamels, who gave the Cubs 7 strong innings, but did not factor in the decision. "... That's the momentum we need to take forth, especially with the series that's coming up."

It also continued one of the strangest/coolest statistical oddities of the 2019 MLB season, given that it came on an 0-2 count.

Baez now has more homers after falling behind in the count 0-2 this year than NINE other MLB teams and nearly half of his homers (9 of 19) have come after getting into the extreme pitcher's count:

What makes Baez so tough on 0-2 counts?

For starters, he's never afraid of striking out, possessing a fearless nature Joe Maddon and other Cubs players have admired for some time.

But Hamels also provided some great perspective on why Baez might be so good in a count when pitchers typically dominate:

"I think that's kinda the difficult part with him — sometimes it can always be 0-2 with him," Hamels said. "Even if you haven't thrown a pitch yet, you treat it like 0-2. If that's just the nature of what pitchers do to him — if it's considered almost always an 0-2 count — he's gonna get really good at it because that's just the way he survives and the way he lives and plays the game. 

"With him though, being a teammate, you just know that he's never out of it. He's trying to hit a homer every at-bat, every pitch. That obviously can make a pitcher think a little bit longer and maybe try to be too perfect and therefore that's why they make mistakes."

The win puts a nice bow on what was otherwise a sloppy weekend for the Cubs, who often looked flat at the plate and made uncharacteristic mistakes on the basepaths and in the field. 

Prior to that homer from Baez, the Cubs had only managed to push across 1 earned run in 13 innings against a Mets bullpen that entered the weekend with a 5.39 ERA and more blown saves than any other team in baseball.

It's the second time in just over a week where the Cubs managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but the last time (Anthony Rizzo's homer off Kenley Jansen last Saturday in L.A.) apparently wasn't enough to spark the team to get back to their winning ways. 

Was this Baez blast enough to wake the team from their midseason slumber and be this year's seminal moment that we all look back on in September? 

While they wait for Kimbrel, Cubs add another intriguing option to bullpen

While they wait for Kimbrel, Cubs add another intriguing option to bullpen

Craig Kimbrel could still make his debut before the current homestand is over, but in the meantime, the Cubs added another intriguing veteran to the bullpen.

Tony Barnette was activated off the 60-day injured list Sunday and Rowan Wick was sent back down to Triple-A Iowa. 

The 35-year-old right-hander has had an interesting career ever since was drafted in the 10th round in 2006 by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Arizona State University. He spent a couple years in the D-Backs organization but then went to Japan in 2010 to pitch for the Yakult Swallows for six seasons.

Barnette returned to the U.S. in 2016, signing a deal with the Rangers and putting up a 3.50 ERA in 125 appearances for Texas over three seasons. The Cubs signed him over the winter to add another arm to the bullpen mix, but he's been hampered by shoulder issues since spring training.

Barnette actually began a rehab stint with Triple-A Iowa in April initially, but made only four appearances before heading back to Arizona to hit the reset button on his recovery. He restarted a rehab assignment with Iowa on June 1 and has been lights out since — he's allowed only a pair of baserunners (1 hit, 1 walk) in 8.1 shutout innings while striking out 9. 

"Patience is a virtue," he said Sunday morning inside the home clubhouse at Wrigley Field. "It's hard to be patient in this game especially when you're expected to be logging innings at the major-league level. Patience was something that I really had to work on and stay with. Stay patient, trust the process, work with the training staff and make sure I was right and I am."

When the Cubs called Barnette over the winter, he said it was definitely a call he wanted to take — to join a team with World Series aspirations and play in front of the fans at Wrigley Field. Now he wants to answer the call out of the bullpen whenever he gets the opportunity.

Joe Maddon hasn't gotten a chance to see Barnette pitch live much due to the early injury in spring training, but the Cubs manager envisions utilizing the veteran righty as a weapon against opposing right-handed hitters. In his MLB career, Barnette has allowed only a .652 OPS to righties vs. a .780 OPS to left-handed hitters.

"He's a strike-thrower. He attacks the zone. He's kind of a fearless guy," Maddon said. "He's an assertive kind of a guy. He's an attacker, he can put the ball on the ground. He's an aggressive sort. Normally pitch-efficient.

"He's very confident right now. He's feeling really good."

When the Cubs signed him over the winter, Barnette was looked at as another potential under-the-radar option in the bullpen and now that the injury is behind him, he and the Cubs are hoping to make good on that potential.

But the Cubs pitching staff is also getting crowded, with Barnette joining a group of bullpen arms that includes:

Pedro Strop
Steve Cishek
Brandon Kintzler
Brad Brach
Kyle Ryan
Mike Montgomery

At the moment, the Cubs have folded both Adbert Alzolay and Tyler Chatwood into a six-man rotation. But they also have Kimbrel's arrival on the horizon as well as the eventual returns of Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr.

It's unknown how all these pieces will fit together, but Barnette could emerge as a reliable piece for Maddon and the Cubs.