PITTSBURGH – The Cubs are nearing a tipping point with their roster, the moment where they can’t worry about egos or defer as much to development, making difficult decisions to try to win that night’s game.
Jorge Soler is one of several moving parts here, a rookie so talented manager Joe Maddon called him Vladimir Guerrero with plate discipline in spring training, predicting he would have been a No. 1 overall pick if he had not been born in Cuba.
But you’re also watching Soler experience some growing pains, which can’t be all that surprising for someone who played in only 151 minor-league games across parts of the last three seasons. That doesn’t make Soler unique on a team where Kris Bryant and Addison Russell have had their up-and-down moments.
Once the Cubs activate Miguel Montero – probably as soon as this weekend – they will again have a potentially awkward three-catcher situation and what should be a fascinating domino effect.
The Cubs are looking for ways to keep Kyle Schwarber’s bat in the lineup, possibly moving Chris Coghlan from left field to right, which could displace Soler, who isn’t hitting for power yet (five homers) and doesn’t make up for it on defense (-10.5 UZR/150).
Coghlan also worked out at second base before Tuesday’s 5-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, which could free up Russell to play shortstop while Starlin Castro sorts through his disappointing season. Javier Baez – who’s red-hot since getting healthy and returning to Triple-A Iowa (1.118 OPS through seven games) – remains another X-factor in the middle-infield equation.
“I’ve been conducting conversations with our guys in the front office to try to find out specifically what they have in mind,” Maddon said. “I know what I think. And I’ve told them that. So I’m not ready yet to specifically tell you what the plan’s going to be.
“Once Miggy comes back, I want it to be in place, so that there’s no gray areas and everybody knows what’s going on. But those conversations are actively going on.”
Soler drew a bases-loaded walk in the first inning to score the game’s first run on Tuesday night and chipped in with an RBI single in the sixth. He worked another walk and also struck out twice, raising his total to 98 through 74 games.
But Maddon digs run prevention and typically sugarcoats his comments about his own players, so it’s telling when the manager grades out Soler’s defense as “average” and doesn’t talk him up as a future Gold Glove winner.
“It definitely could be improved,” Maddon said.
This doesn’t always show up in the box score, but Soler’s trouble with running routes is obvious, which, again, could be a product of his youth and inexperience. Maybe those flyballs don’t fall onto the warning track in 2016 and 2017 as Soler gets a better feel for defensive positioning and outfield dimensions.
Maddon sounded a little defensive when a reporter suggested the Cubs would “really dive in” and help Soler with those subtle adjustments next year during spring training.
“We dove in this year,” Maddon said. “We’ve been diving. I’ve had a lot of experience working with outfielders, and so has Davey (bench coach Dave Martinez). We combine a lot of different thoughts and I think our overall outfield play has been outstanding.
“With (Soler), he’s been outstanding on some days. And some days, he gets a little bit tangle-foot out there. And that’s just something you have to keep walking through. I promise you all the work has been put in from the very beginning in spring training.
“The information is really good. It’s not OK. It’s outstanding. So you just have to get the player to be able to take that and process it daily and work through (it). Because – believe me – the work has been done.”
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Maddon has been able to run the bullpen smoothly without anointing anyone as the closer, keeping different relievers involved and playing the matchups, which could be another way of thinking about the lineup across the final two months.
Still, Soler is a presence with so much potential at the age 23. He might also be the big bat the Cubs didn’t get at the trade deadline and could use right now.
“There’s definitely another level to his entire game,” Maddon said.