Cubs

Jorge Soler showing Cubs why he thrives on playoff pressure

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Jorge Soler showing Cubs why he thrives on playoff pressure

Pressure? These Cubs smashed that playoff narrative into pieces, shrugging off the weight of franchise history like it’s nothing.

Pressure? It’s not like these Cubs grew up in the Chicago suburbs, idolizing Ernie Banks and Ron Santo and seeing the 1969 team collapse. They’re not from the generation that sat around college dorm rooms and Lakeview bars watching the 2003 team unravel, only five outs away from the World Series.

Pressure? Try playing for the Cuban junior national team, understanding that you had to produce to keep your spot for the next high-profile tournament, not knowing if you would ever get another chance to make an impression on the scouts in the stands. And then making the life-changing decision that would impact your entire family.

That’s a window into Jorge Soler’s world, the nerves it took to get to this point, the Cubs riding a wave of momentum into the National League Championship Series that begins Saturday night against the Mets at Citi Field.

[SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

Theo Epstein’s front office couldn’t have predicted Soler beginning his postseason career by getting on base in each of his first nine plate appearances, because no one in major-league history had ever done that before.

But the Cubs always believed an outfielder built more like an NFL linebacker possessed the unique combination of power (two homers), patience (six walks) and presence (that Game 4 throw to home plate) you saw against the St. Louis Cardinals.

“This is why we do what we do,” said Louie Eljaua, the team’s director of international operations. “Our scouts are out there beating the bushes, in the trenches, to find guys that are going to help us win championships.

“He’s really come to life here and performed in a big way on the biggest stage possible.”

Eljaua watched it up close this week at Wrigley Field as the Cubs invited scouts and player-development staffers from around the world – including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama and Colombia – to see the payoff for all their hard work behind the scenes.

Soler, 23, is part of a larger story about The Cubs Way and how this franchise is positioned to be a perennial playoff contender. (The hunt never stops: CBS Sports reported the Cubs and San Francisco Giants are waiting for Major League Baseball to decide which team has an agreement with Cuban outfielder Eddy Julio Martinez.)

[MORE: Cubs get back to work after partying it up following NLDS win]

Remember, 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.

Soler still hasn’t played a full season of professional baseball yet and had only 151 minor-league games on his resume heading into this year. 

“There’s been some bumps along the way with injuries and whatnot,” Eljaua said. “But he’s resilient enough to make adjustments, learn, continue to put together good at-bats and grow from that.

“The ceiling is still very high. He’s scratching the surface right now with what we expect him to do. It’s really scary to think that there’s more room and there’s more upside.”

Eljaua grew up in Miami, the son of Cuban parents, breaking into the business with the Florida Marlins, where he worked with future Cubs general manager Jim Hendry and helped find a future World Series MVP (Livan Hernandez) and Triple Crown winner (Miguel Cabrera). 

While working for the Boston Red Sox, Eljaua and Epstein had once put the full-court press on another Cuban pitcher at a hotel in Nicaragua, thinking they had Jose Contreras locked up until the New York Yankees swooped in with a bigger offer to join the Evil Empire. 

[ALSO: Cubs will rely on Baez with Russell out of NLCS]

Signing Soler became a priority within the first months of the Epstein administration in Chicago, the Cubs looking for long-term building blocks and a new labor deal changing the rules of engagement on the international market.

Chairman Tom Ricketts even took time to meet with Soler’s camp during a trip to the Dominican Republic, the Cubs guaranteeing $30 million in the summer of 2012.

“When we go out there and identify players and sign the guys we sign, we do it with the intent of them coming to Chicago and helping us win,” Eljaua said. “We try to identify specific guys and scout not just ability – but makeup and talent and fortitude and all that – because it takes a different cat to play here.

“It’s kind of like Boston, New York. To be able to handle the grind, to be able to perform on this stage, to be able to deal with what they deal with on a daily basis playing here – and then to enjoy it and continue to do it and be disciplined enough to do it is (difficult).

“You have to tip your cap to a lot of different people that had a hand in this, from Tom Ricketts to our scouts to Theo.”

Eljaua remembered Soler standing out as a teenager at an international tournament in Venezuela – where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado played for Team USA – and looking like he belonged with those future All-Stars.

Soler opened eyes again in 2010 with his performance at the World Junior Baseball Championship in Canada, perhaps a preview for how he would respond in October.

[MORE: Cubs lining up Lester, Arrieta for first two games of NLCS]

“He was always about baseball,” Eljaua said. “He wasn’t really distracted with other things as far as like what kind of car he was going to buy or how big a house he was going to get.

“I always try to get in their heads: What do you want to do when you sign? What’s your first objective?

“He was always about family. He was always about baseball. He was always about getting to the States. And from the time we’ve signed him, he’s been appreciative of that.”

To be honest, Soler probably had a disappointing regular season (10 homers, 47 RBI), at least compared to Kris Bryant’s Rookie of the Year campaign and Anthony Rizzo’s MVP-level performance.  

Soler missed time with a sprained ankle and a strained oblique, playing in 101 games and getting 400-plus plate appearances, leading to more questions about his ability to stay healthy and whether or not he’d be ready in time for the playoffs.     

But Soler already answered that question in October: Pressure? What pressure?

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.

 

One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:

 

 

David Kaplan

 

—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.

 

Kelly Crull

 

—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.

 

Luke Stuckmeyer

 

—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.

 

Tony Andracki

 

—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 

 

Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 

 

Jeff Nelson, producer

 

—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

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No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.