SURPRISE, Ariz. – The same qualities that first jumped out to Dale Sveum on video are all still there. The Cubs made Jorge Soler a top priority during the first weeks of the Theo Epstein administration, scouting him heavily, putting together a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract and getting input from their handpicked manager.
Fired after 197 losses combined in 2012 and 2013, Sveum never got a chance to work closely with Soler in Wrigleyville, though he did reestablish his reputation as a hitting guru after helping the Kansas City Royals teams that won a World Series title and back-to-back American League pennants in 2014 and 2015.
Now Soler looms as one of Sveum’s biggest projects as the Royals try to get back to October and make another run before Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain can become free agents after this season. Trying to fulfill both of those ideals – winning now while also building for the future – drove the decision to trade one season of All-Star closer Wade Davis for the next four years of Soler’s career.
"Very raw," Sveum said. "But obviously you saw tremendous strength and bat speed and tools and all that. You still see it. The thing we have to remember is this young man still has only got 1,300 professional at-bats, where half of that development has been in the big leagues.
"(With) minor-leaguers, we don’t really even try evaluating until a couple thousand professional at-bats. Otherwise, I think you’re pissing against the wind."
Soler missed roughly two years of game action during the odyssey that saw him defect from Cuba, train in the Dominican Republic, establish residency in Haiti and finally gain clearance to sign in the United States in the summer of 2012.
Hitting seventh in Kansas City’s lineup, Soler got drilled by an Eddie Butler fastball in his first at-bat and went 0-for-2 during Wednesday’s 7-3 loss to the Cubs at Surprise Stadium. The Royals hope the designated-hitter spot in the American League game can help Soler finally stay healthy and avoid some of the leg issues that also stalled his development.
Plus, Soler will get the opportunity in right field that no longer existed with Gold Glove defender Jason Heyward stationed at Wrigley Field and manager Joe Maddon having so many other versatile players at his disposal.
"I think this is the best thing for me," Soler said through Royals translator/catching coach Pedro Grifol.
Soler has shown flashes of dominance – he put up a 1.705 OPS during the 2015 playoffs – and a natural understanding of the strike zone and what he wants to do in the batter’s box.
"We all saw that right away," Sveum said. "This guy (is) pretty good at getting a good hit to pitch, laying off all the borderline, down nibblers on the corners, all that stuff. He seemed to have a knack for that. He even talks about it: 'If I play every day, I want to walk 70 to 80 times.’"
Maddon once compared Soler to Vladimir Guerrero with plate discipline, a No. 1 overall pick-type of talent if he had been born in Miami instead of Havana. Soler just turned 25. All these years later, Sveum will be trying to unlock Soler’s potential in Kansas City.
"I still think he’s developing into what he possibly could be," Sveum said. "He’s been very good in camp so far, trying to make adjustments in his legs and things like that, knowing the issues that come with some of the mechanics he’s been using. But like I said, it’s still a development thing. As much as we’d all like to think (otherwise), it’s not a polished product, by no means."