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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.”

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.