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.”

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.

After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.

Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.

"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."

"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.

"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."

His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.

Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.

He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on. 

"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.

"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is. 

"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."

Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.

Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.

When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.

He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.

Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.

Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.

Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.

"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Marlon Byrd discusses his suspensions for PED use and Ozzie Guillen offers a solution to the PED problem

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NBC Sports Chicago

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Marlon Byrd discusses his suspensions for PED use and Ozzie Guillen offers a solution to the PED problem

Ozzie Guillen explains why he thinks Manny Machado is a better fit for the Cubs than the White Sox. Plus, Guillen and Marlon Byrd react to 19-year-old Juan Soto hitting a homer in his first at-bat with the Nationals.

Later in the show the guys debate who had the better rants in front of the media: Guillen or Byrd?

Finally, Byrd opens up about his PED suspensions, relates to the guys caught using PEDs now and Guillen offers up a solution to rid baseball of PEDs entirely.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: