Jorge Soler suffered a left hamstring strain while running to first base during Monday’s game against the Phillies. That story is, unfortunately, a familiar one for Cubs fans at this point. The young, promising slugger only recently appeared to be emerging from his early-season doldrums with one of his patented hot streaks, and Cubs fans now turn around to find him gone—just as the Cubs needed him more than ever.
There is no timetable for Soler’s return at this point, but it’s reasonably safe to assume that it will be longer than the 15-day minimum stint the league requires for all disabled list trips. Soler has suffered through numerous leg injuries already in his young pro career, many of which have involved the hamstring: he strained the same muscle on April 4, 2014, while still in the minor leagues, and missed 33 days with that injury. He came back, was active 9 days, and then promptly strained his other hamstring and missed 51 more days. It’s safe to say that the Cubs will be cautious in bringing Soler back.
His injury, clearly, has significant implications for the Cubs in 2016. Let’s talk about them. The start of the Cubs season is among the best in baseball history, but is it time to panic after losing Jorge Soler?
Of course not, everything is going to be alright. <SLAP>
The Cubs are off to a historically great start. They have won the most games in their first 58 since the 2001 Seattle Mariners. They have a run differential, at this point of the season, that’s among the ten best since the implementation of the foul strike rule, and all this happened after losing Kyle Schwarber for the entire year. Let’s read that again: the Cubs lost a player they were counting on in the heart of their order for more than the entire year, and not only did they not miss a beat, but they’ve played at historic levels. The Cubs can take this injury in stride, too.
For one thing, they have the ability to play Kris Bryant in the outfield more, and should be able to replace Jorge Soler’s offensive production with some combination of Javier Baez and the newly-re-acquired Chris Coghlan. Tommy La Stella (.312), who’s on the disabled list, and Baez (.283) both have a higher TAv so far this year than Soler (.281), and when La Stella comes back they’ll form a nice duo in a platoon infield-outfield role. Baez has been hot and cold at the plate like Soler, but he offers the upside of Soler’s power production, and La Stella, once he’s back from his own injury, offers the ability to shield Baez from some of the more difficult matchups, and provide consistent contact and on base percentage. Coghlan, for his part, offers a turnaround profile, and some outfield reps that La Stella can’t provide.
In the short term, Cubs could have brought up clubhouse and fan favorite Munenori Kawasaki for a few weeks. The Cubs would then have just played Bryant in the outfield full time while Baez and La Stella split time at third and other infield spots, while Kawasaki stayed glued to the bench, to be used as needed. The Cubs chose to take a different route, though, with the call up of Albert Almora, Jr.. Almora does not offer the safety in offensive production that the Baez and La Stella platoon would, but does represent a huge defensive upgrade in the outfield. The Cubs’ outfield defense with any combination of Albert Almora, Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward and Matt Szczur in the three outfield spots is pretty special.
So, the defense was improved by the Almora call up. It’s rather like, in that sense, the Addison Russell call up last year, in that Almora is really a defense-first player at this point in time (not to take anything away from his offense, which has been fairly solid in Iowa this year). Almora will start his time with the Cubs at the less-demanding defensive position, but depending on the situation might eventually be able to overcome the deference granted to the incumbent. True, it’ll be harder for Almora to unseat Fowler this year in particular, given just how well Fowler is playing on both sides of the ball, but the best defensive alignment the Cubs can play would be with Almora in center field.
The schedule also gives the Cubs, and their fans, reason to not panic. The North Siders will play the Reds and Braves a total of 10 times in the next 26 games. There is a tough stretch following the upcoming Braves series where the Cubs travel to Washington and then face the Pirates and Cardinals at home, but games against those rebuilding teams should prevent a free fall. On the other hand …
Would you say it is time to panic?
Yes I would, Kent.
This is the start of the end. Injuries were the only thing that could derail the 2016 Cubs, and now the team has lost two key outfielders. Meanwhile, they have another outfielder (Heyward) that has not hit all year except for the first 7 games of June, and may or may not be dealing with a wrist issue still. The other starting outfielder, for his part, is playing at a level never seen before in his career at age 30. One more negative outcome that is not offset by the team’s depth could derail this whole thing. That negative outcome could be regression from Dexter Fowler or an injury to either Fowler or Kris Bryant.
True, the 2016 Cubs have tremendous depth that has insulated them from many risks so far, despite suffering a number of injuries to position players (Kyle Schwarber, Matt Szczur, Miguel Montero, and Jorge Soler). The team has also banked a lot of wins in a fairly short amount of time. A reasonable fear is that it might take more wins than usual to make the postseason, even in the expanded format. The stratified talent levels of teams in the National League is likely to lead to a number of inflated win totals, and so it is possible that a 90- or more win team might not make the postseason. The possibility of the Cubs being that team increases with each mounting player loss.
So really is it time to panic?
The most likely outcome is somewhere in the middle of these two scenarios. Well, actually, it’s probably far closer to the first scenario of not missing a beat. Okay, so maybe the most likely result is two-thirds of the first scenario.
The Cubs probably will suffer a bit from the lost depth in Soler, but the fact is that their lineup doesn’t have any glaring holes, yet. Joe Maddon still has a number of players that offer useful skills and often-elite tools. The versatility of those players offer Maddon a chance to maximize those tools, and put his players in a position to succeed. It does put more pressure on Jason Heyward to figure it out at the plate sooner than later, and on Ben Zobrist and Dexter Fowler to play at career-peak levels in their thirties. And, too, it makes it even more important that the starting staff stay healthy and continue its run of excellence. But again, the Cubs can weather a rough stretch thanks to their tremendous start.
And this is not a permanent situation for the Cubs. Soler is not done for the season, and he will have time to make a difference if his loss does represent some sort of tipping point. He also has shown the ability to perform quickly following injury: his scorching playoff performance, which came after being active for less than a month, is just one example.
Alright, maybe it’s more like three-fourths the first scenario.
What about beyond 2016?
Every baseball decision has both short and long-term implications. The focus to this point has rightfully been on how the Soler injury affects the 2016 season, but the long-term implications are interesting to ponder. Here’s one: Soler will fail to play a full season yet again. He played over 100 games in a season for the first time last year, and it is unlikely that he will play much more than he did in 2015.
Joe Maddon may bristle at the notion that Soler is injury prone, and there is certainly some truth to the notion that a guy is injury prone until he is not. But no matter the results in 2016, the Cubs will be trying to win the ultimate prize yet again in 2017, and now have two outfielders coming back with serious health questions in 2017. Dexter Fowler’s impending free agency looms. There is a problem with counting on Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber to be productive full time players next year if your goal is championship contention.
Albert Almora’s call up was certainly based mostly on the belief that he could help the 2016 Cubs, but it is also fair to wonder if this call up is testing whether he is capable of filling a starting role in 2017. The Cubs have the luxury of working him in slowly now with the big division lead, and Almora is likely to struggle at the plate, at least a little bit, at the beginning. He has shown tremendous progress in that area and his glove means that he has to produce very little at the plate to be a useful player. But if he does show enough at the plate, in this small cup of coffee, it could help ease the Cubs’ concerns in letting Dexter Fowler walk to earn a draft pick. It had to be at least a small factor in a very cautious front office’s call up of a prospect with clear areas of improvement needed.
Ultimately, the injury to Jorge Soler is a blow to the development of a still-enigmatic talent. That’s bad news for Soler. But the 2016 Cubs are likely to be able to weather the loss just fine, even if another injury during this time might derail the train. Meanwhile, the injury gives the Cubs a unique chance to develop a player that could be called on soon to fill a potential void in 2017.
Lead photo courtesy Kamil Krzaczynski—USA Today Sports.