Cubs

Jorge Soler adds another dimension to Cubs lineup looking ahead to October

Jorge Soler adds another dimension to Cubs lineup looking ahead to October

Jorge Soler isn’t a finished product or the most polished hitter, but he’s someone the other team has to account for, a fast-twitch athlete with the power to change a game with one swing.

That’s exactly what Soler did for the Cubs during Wednesday night’s 6-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field, crushing Jimmy Nelson’s 93-mph fastball and driving it into the back of the left-center field bleachers, nearly hitting the bottom of the video board with a three-run homer.

That became the exclamation point to a five-run, first-inning blitz that allowed Jon Lester to go into cruise-control mode and gave the bullpen a breather the day after a doubleheader. Soler might not ever be able to do this for 150 games and 600 at-bats a year – the injury-prone label sticks – but he can be a dangerous hitter in a short playoff series.

Just look at what Soler did to the St. Louis Cardinals last October, setting a new major-league record by getting on base in his first nine career postseason plate appearances and hitting two homers in four games.

“Presence,” said Lester (13-4, 2.86 ERA), who pitched into the seventh inning and limited the Brewers to one run and three hits. “He’s a big feller.

“(It) adds to that pitcher having to work to get to the bottom of that order, (because) guys aren’t allowed to take breaks. That’s the biggest thing. Tonight (against the Brewers), you get to the bottom of the order, you’re like: ‘OK, I got this guy, I got this guy, then I got the pitcher.’ And you feel like you can navigate. I don’t feel like you can do that with our lineup.

“It’s very, very deep. And I think that plays well into October, and hopefully to where we can use different matchups as far as the DH.”

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Yes, the didn’t-come-here-for-a-haircut Cubs are already thinking about the World Series, moving to 33 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2008 season and keeping a 12.5-game lead over the Cardinals in the division.

Soler embraced that playoff pressure last year, admitting he played with sharper focus, and the Cubs might need another big bat with Kyle Schwarber unable to hammer pitches onto video boards and Jason Heyward enduring one of the worst offensive seasons in baseball this year.

“When George is swinging it well, he’s a huge part of this team,” said David Ross, who also homered off Nelson in the third inning. “He’s a presence with the power he has – and how well he hits lefties – and now he’s hitting righties. He’s just not missing the ball. You can tell he’s locked in.

“It makes our lineup that much deeper. When he was out, from the catcher’s standpoint, you see that the lineup’s shortening. Once you get past a certain guy, then it’s a little easier to navigate the lineup.”

After missing almost two months with a strained hamstring, Soler has gone 11-for-29 with a double, four homers and 10 RBI in 10 games since coming off the disabled list, adding another dimension to the best team in baseball.

“That’s why the ball is being struck as well as it is – he’s really staying in the zone,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s been very patient. That’s something (our hitting coaches) promote with all of our hitters. But with him, it’s really obvious. When he’s in the zone, when he’s not permitting the pitcher to expand, he’s really good.”  

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

There may not be a player in baseball more exciting to watch than Javier Báez.

Whether at the plate, in the field or on the bases, Báez is a human highlight real. He’s one of the most powerful hitters in baseball; he has a cannon for an arm, exemplary defensive range and is a tagging maestro. He’s a dynamic baserunner who uses his elite baseball instincts to go station-to-station while magically avoiding tags along the way.

Yeah, there’s a reason Báez is known as “El Mago.” It’s not a matter of if he’ll make an incredible play each game, but a matter of when. Things come easy for the 27-year-old full of flair who makes the most difficult plays seem routine.

Báez is a career .270/.310/.484 hitter who’s hit 110 home runs in parts of six big-league seasons. One of those long balls came in his big-league debut (Aug. 5, 2014), a go-ahead blast against the Rockies in the 12th inning. The legend of El Mago was born.

Báez is the Cubs starting shortstop, though that hasn’t always been the case. Starlin Castro was the starter in 2014; Addison Russell claimed the title from Castro in the second half of 2015, holding it down until late in the 2018 season. Russell hit the injured list that August as the Cubs simultaneously acquired Daniel Murphy in an attempt to jump-start the offense.

By the time Russell returned, Báez was a clear-cut NL MVP candidate. The latter still bounced around the infield from time-to-time, but with Murphy entrenched at second, shortstop became Báez’s primary position. He’s been the starter ever since.

Báez has played 2,646 2/3 career innings at shortstop compared to 1,856 at second base (and 629 1/3 at third). He’s exclusively a shortstop these days, but the El Mago second base days aren’t forgotten.

Báez was the co-recipient of the 2016 NLCS MVP award (along with Jon Lester) and has started back-to-back All-Star Games (2018 at second, 2019 at shortstop). He was the runner-up for the 2018 NL MVP award, posting career highs across the board: .290/.326/.554, 34 homers, 111 RBIs, 129 OPS+.

And yet, it feels like Báez is only getting started. Nevertheless, his career to date has more than earned him a spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team at second base. With that, we'll leave you with this:

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

You saw this one coming, right?

As the Cubs’ longest tenure player, Anthony Rizzo was a shoo-in for this group. He hasn’t relinquished his starting first baseman job since making his Cubs debut in June 2012. The guy’s longevity alone is impressive.

But besides that, Rizzo has been a model of consistency during his time on the North Side. Since 2012, he’s hit 217 home runs (averaging 27 per season) and hit 32 three times from 2014-17. The lone exception? 2015, when he hit 31. So close…

As a Cub, Rizzo is a .277/.376/.496 hitter with a 132 OPS+. He produces at a high clip each season, whether he’s hitting third, cleanup or leadoff, all while simultaneously playing stellar defense. The 30-year-old is a three-time Gold Glove Award winner (2016, 2018-19).

Rizzo is the guy who comes up huge in key moments but will be there to address the media after tough losses. He’s the de facto captain of the Cubs, the guy who suffered a nasty ankle sprain in September that could have ended his regular season. Instead, he returned four days later for a key series against the rival Cardinals, as the Cubs were fighting to keep their October dreams alive.

When he’s not leading his team on the field, Rizzo is giving back to the community off of it. He’s one of the most charitable athletes in the world and recently raised $1.3 million for children’s cancer research at his “8th annual Walk-off for Cancer” in his home state of Florida.

Rizzo was the first building block of the Cubs core which snapped their infamous 108-year championship drought, but he’ll be remembered for more than that. He’s a leader on and off the field, the clear choice for starting first baseman on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Derrek Lee, Bryan LaHair