I have a confession to make. I’ve always been in love with Jorge Soler as a hitter. With a walk rate over 10 percent and strikeout rate right around 17 percent in the minor leagues, and with his hulking physique and a smile that could light up the entire state of Ohio for a week, how could you not fall head over heels for him? Because of that, it’s with a heavy heart that I must acknowledge that his current playing time situation, as far as we can judge it a few days into the 2016 season—not trusted defensively in the outfield, and getting only occasional starts against lefties—is not good for his development.
As you might imagine, that last sentence was written before Kyle Schwarber and Dexter Fowler collided in left field, causing all Cubs fans to collectively and simultaneously curse and hold their breath. But, despite it looking awful while Schwarber was being hauled off on a cart, the news is as good as we could expect: he has a sprained ankle, x-rays were negative, and the Cubs will give him an MRI today. What looked like it could be an injury of the season-ending variety may be a week, a few weeks, or maybe a bit longer, but things look good for Schwarber to be back in the Cubs lineup at some point in the near future.
The funny thing? After examining how I felt about Soler’s situation after hearing that the Schwarber injury was not as bad as initially expected, I realized I still felt relatively the same about his role on the team, and the lack of playing and development time he looks likely to get right now. If Schwarber is back in the lineup and Soler still hasn’t figured things out, it’s possible that going back to Triple-A to play every day and work on his fielding might be what’s best for him.
I know what a lot of you are thinking, and I want to set the record straight: This isn’t about Matt Szczur. Do I need to repeat myself? Good. Because I want to be clear that I think there is a very real conversation happening around Soler right now, and what happens with him this year will be key in the direction that his career takes. At any rate, if Schwarber is placed on the disabled list then Szczur isn’t going anywhere. People seem to remember that Soler has had injury problems in the past, but the part about him missing a lot of time on the field in his professional career seems to get lost in the conversation. Let me better frame this for you; since signing with the Cubs in 2012, Soler has averaged just 286 plate appearances per season—a total of 1,147 in four years.
That’s certainly not enough to make any judgements on a young hitter, but Soler—much like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Schwarber, and others—has been thrown to the fire in the major leagues. He’s compiled 510 plate appearances with the Cubs since 2014, and it’s been hit and miss. He crushed home runs in St. Louis in September two seasons ago and killed the Cardinals in the playoffs last season, but he also has hit the disabled list twice, struck out more than was expected, and has been brutal in the outfield.
And here we are, with Jason Heyward set to take his spot in right field, Fowler taking center, and Soler stuck fighting for time with Schwarber—once he’s healthy—in left. For Soler, who hit .145/.200/.327 with 14 strikeouts in 55 at-bats in the Cactus League, this is not ideal. He has yet to really look comfortable at the plate and after Schwarber came out of the game last night, Joe Maddon put Bryant out in left and Tommy La Stella at third base rather than bringing in Soler—something that is at least a small commentary on Maddon’s level of trust with Soler right now.
It begs the question—is this the best thing for Soler’s development? I know people don’t like to throw that word around these days with the Cubs prepared to take the world by storm in 2016, but fans have been spoiled by the performances of Bryant, Schwarber, and Russell as key contributors on a contending team. Not every 23-or-24-year-old is ready for Major League Baseball. Is it possible that Soler needs to continue playing on an everyday basis for him to develop?
“According to Fangraphs, the average in-the-zone contact percentage for a hitter in Major League Baseball is around 87 percent, or pretty close to what Soler actually put up in 2015. And swinging at 34.9 percent of pitches that are thrown outside the strike zone, as Soler did last year, comes in slightly above the average rate of 30 percent, which is perfectly fine by itself. But that’s where we find the real problem for the tall Cuban outfielder. While that same piece at Fangraphs notes that the average contact rate on pitches outside the zone is around 66 percent, Soler makes contact with just 45 percent of pitches he swings at outside the strike zone.
Simply put, Soler’s selection at the plate was a big-time problem for him.”
Some will compare Bryant and Schwarber to Soler, pointing out the success that they’ve had despite relatively short stints in the minors. Bryant only had 773 plate appearances in the minors before coming up and Schwarber just 621, so what’s the big deal with Soler? Well, first of all, while those two went on to play multiple years of college baseball, Soler came over to the United States and signed his nine-year contract with the Cubs, taking a year off from playing in the process.
And then he was in Chicago just two seasons later. In fairness to Theo Epstein and the Cubs front office that decided Soler was ready back in August of 2014, Soler had hit .303/.381/.542 with 28 home runs in 155 career minor league games. It certainly looked, at the time, like he was ready for Chicago.
But it’s a continual process for Soler. He needs to be able to work on his problems at the plate and get comfortable again, and that’s not to mention the need for him to be steady in the field—at least to the point where Joe Maddon can trust him out there. A few weeks down at Triple-A and playing every day in the field might be just what he needs—to gain confidence, get comfortable, and be able to consistently be the guy we all saw at the plate last October.
Lead photo courtesy Gary A. Vasquez—USA Today Sports.