Despite crowded outfield, Cubs think Soler can hit reset button in 2016


Despite crowded outfield, Cubs think Soler can hit reset button in 2016

MESA, Ariz. - Dexter Fowler's arrival shook up the Cubs outfield situation, but that doesn't necessarily mean Jorge Soler's value took a major hit.

With the arrival of Fowler and Shane Victorino (who signed Friday morning), it pushes free agent prize Jason Heyward to his Gold Glove position of right field, meaning Soler will move to left primarily, where he will have to compete with Kyle Schwarber for playing time.

[RELATED - Shane Victorino joins Cubs with thoughts of a championship on his mind]

But it's not as simple as looking at it as a platoon in left field. Schwarber will be catching some and he struggled against left-handed pitchers last year (.481 OPS in 61 plate appearances).

Then there's injuries to take into account. Fowler averaged only 128 games a season before playing 156 contests last year. Soler missed 61 games last season and had several injury issues in the minor leagues.

The Cubs believe Joe Maddon can make it all work and with respect to Soler, they feel confident they can unlock his untapped potential.

"There's a lot in there," Maddon said about Soler, who turned 24 Thursday. "A young guy last year who had high expectations, obviously. Didn't get off to the start he's looking for.

"And I don't think he really process the moment as well as he possibly could. I'm not blaming him. He's a young guy getting caught up in the moment. But it's our responsibility to give him more tools to work with, whether it's mentally or physically."

Maddon believes Soler understands what he needs to do now and the Cubs manager also feels another year under Soler's belt in the American culture and learning the language will help out.

Maddon thinks Soler put too much pressure on himself to meet lofty personal expectations last season and when the calendar flipped to the playoffs, the Cubs feel Soler treated it like a new season.

The results followed immediately, as Soler reached base the first nine times he came to the plate in the postseason and wound up hitting .474 with a 1.705 OPS, three doubles and three homers in seven games.

Soler admitted his focus was higher in the playoffs than it was during the regular season, when he struggled to find consistency, posting a .723 OPS in 404 plate appearances.

"We need to get that playoff performance out of him on a more consistent basis," Maddon said. "That's all prep work, I think. It's just a matter of teaching him how to get ready on a daily basis.

"And we will. When we do that, you're gonna see more of that kind of performance on a consistent basis."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

For his part, Soler doesn't seem worried, standing at his locker Friday morning, smiling freely and talking about how excited he is that Fowler is back.

"Right now, I don't worry about my playing time," Soler said through an interpreter. "When I get my opportunity, I'll do my job and do what I can to help the team.

"I'm ready to go out there and do my work."

The Cubs had already talked to Soler about becoming more versatile and getting some reps in left field before the Fowler signing was made public.

Soler hasn't played left at all before in his career, but he is open to learning the new spot.

He also shed 10 pounds in the offseason in an effort to take pressure off his legs and reduce the risk of injury.

"I don't worry about the future," Soler said. "I just worked hard in the offseason to get my body in the best shape."

Cubs to reportedly conduct second interview with Joe Espada for managerial opening

Cubs to reportedly conduct second interview with Joe Espada for managerial opening

Astros bench coach Joe Espada has two days off before Houston hosts Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday, but it looks like some of that time will be spent in Chicago.

According to multiple reports, the Cubs will interview Espada a second time for their managerial opening. MLB Network's Jon Heyman reports that the interview is happening on Sunday.

Espada is one of the more sought after managerial candidates this offseason, as he's spent the last six seasons with two of baseball's leading franchises. The 44-year-old has been Astros bench coach since 2018, and prior to that, he spent four seasons with the Yankees — 2014 as a front office assistant, 2015-17 as third base coach.

David Ross was the presumed favorite for the Cubs' opening, when the process got underway. However, by landing a second interview, Espada has clearly given the team something to think about. In fact, NBC Sports Chicago's David Kaplan reported on Thursday the Cubs came away "exceptionally impressed" from Espada's first interview on Monday. 

MLB prefers teams not to make managerial announcements during the World Series. So, it might be a few more weeks before the Cubs announce their decision, unless they do so on Sunday or Monday.

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As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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