At every turn, it seems, the 2016 season has put up obstacles for Jorge Soler. He has hurdled each of them with aplomb so far, and to date his 2016 season has carried a Joseph Campbell-esque hero’s journey quality to it, to say nothing of the broader story: that Soler is a baseball player who defected from Cuba as a teenager just to get to this point.
Even when the Cubs signed Jason Heyward in December and he agreed to play center field instead of right, Soler’s place on the team looked secure and it was easy to envision at that time a season of Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler flanking Heyward in the outfield. Though there were some concerns back then about the strength of the outfield defense under that configuration, it was a comfortable enough vision.
Then, on February 25, Dexter Fowler shocked much of the baseball world and especially his Chicago teammates by not becoming an Oriole, but re-joining the Cubs for another year instead. This suddenly shifted Soler into a question mark and a likely platoon left fielder, a position he had not played at all prior to this season.
And then … well, the story of what happened to Kyle Schwarber’s season is not one we need repeat. Because of it, Soler’s spot on defense was suddenly very open, and it was still early April. Kris Bryant and Matt Szczur could spell him out there from time to time, but with the outfield ivy still brown behind him in the early weeks of the season, Soler seemed set, and though through less than ideal means, he had passed the first obstacle.
Instead of thriving and building on a mostly successful 2015 season, however, he struggled at the plate mightily. He earned the begrudging respect of the league as a more than passable left fielder, but with his slash line sitting at .174/.263/.267 in the middle of May, Soler was facing new obstacles to his playing time. Joe Maddon doggedly stood by him through the first five or six weeks of the season, but Soler’s near absent offensive production made that difficult.
Mid-May would be the low point though, at least statistically. Soler, who had carried the offense through the NLDS in October of 2015, would embark on a three week climb from then to resuscitate his offensive output, and it would work. From a May 14 low of .530 OPS, Soler would be sitting at .699 by June 6. Perhaps it was a product of Maddon’s faith in him finally coming to fruition at the plate, or as he has since described in interviews during his rehab, he was inexplicably struggling early on and now things had started to click. Whatever the case, another hurdle had been cleared.
Then it was obstacle time again. His is already a career beset by leg troubles, and a hamstring pull right in the middle of his resurgence was just another barrier. Soler had to sit out for six weeks before even rehabbing, and even that would prove to be a mighty hill to climb.
This hill started ominously, with a rainout taking away what should have been his first rehab game with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs in the third week of July. Then, when he finally played in his first rehab game, he struck out three times in three at bats. The next day he’d manage a hit, but on a pop-up that Des Moines Register writer Tommy Birch attributed more to the ball getting lost in the sun. On those days in Des Moines, Birch shared via email that “his timing looked way off. He didn’t hit anything hard and it looked like he was just trying to watch pitches early in the rehab process just to get a feel for anything.” Things even looked shakier than usual on defense, as Birch added that “I remember a ball going deep to the wall and Soler wasn’t exactly the most enthused chasing after [it].” And Birch, like many watching those games in person, even wondered about Soler’s interest in being there at all.
In a story for the Register, Birch wrote about Soler’s struggles and captured his frustrations with the length of time his recovery had already taken, an obstacle added to the already heavy task of preparing for a return to the majors following an extended absence: “I never thought it was going to be that long. I thought it was only going to be two weeks. It’s a little bit frustrating, because I never thought it was going to be this long for the rehab and coming back from the injury.” Soler would add that physically he felt better at the time, and therefore a return to the majors looked to be coming soon.
However, things would actually get a little worse. Soler left Iowa after just the two games with only one hit in seven at bats, and five strikeouts. He’d actually move down a level, to Double-A Tennessee, to continue working on preparing for an eventual return. While with the Tennessee Smokies, things would improve only marginally. In nine games there, Soler would go 5 for 30 and not collect a single extra base hit. He would walk eleven times, but a collective slash line of .162/.347/.162 in eleven minor league rehab games didn’t point to a glorious return to Chicago, whenever that would come.
In fact, as recently as August 3, that return was still a question mark. At the time, Soler was still miring in rehab with the team on a road trip to Alabama, and the big league club was doing just fine moving along without him, fresh off of completing a sweep of the Marlins.
But here’s where the story shifts, both dramatically and abruptly. Seemingly at odds with what was expected at the time, Soler was activated the next day, and in the lineup by August 5. The quest to return had been rocky enough, but Soler would triumphantly reintroduce himself to major league baseball while in Oakland last weekend. In that first game back, a late Friday night affair that was the first of the eventual sweep over the Athletics, Soler thundered a three run homer in his first at bat back in the majors. He waited two pitches, and when Athletics pitcher Dillon Overton threw a fastball on the third, Soler sent it packing to drive in three runs and it was as if he’d never been gone.
We know the rest of that series, too. We know that on Saturday afternoon Soler doubled off of Liam Hendriks to score Addison Russell, but this time after seeing three straight fastballs, Soler picked the slider to poke into nearly foul territory in left field. We also know that on Sunday Soler would homer again, bringing his season total to seven. In this case he’d battled through a long at bat, fouling off a fastball and a changeup and watching a changeup for a strike. But after letting three pitches go by outside of the zone, Soler tagged the third fastball of that at bat on a line drive to left field and ended Oakland starter Sean Manaea’s outing and gave the Cubs a bit of extra cushion in an eventual 3-1 win.
Of course it’s just three games, and the weeks that play out from here may look a lot differently, but in three games Soler spiked his OPS all the way to .746 and is batting .232, the highest it’s been since mid-April. But the juxtaposition of the Jorge Soler of minor league rehab, seemingly lost and at times even seemingly disinterested in being there, and the Jorge Soler of his return to the majors, powerful and hitting in stride with his streak that started in early June, is a sharp one. The difference between these two is hard to make sense of, but minor league rehab statistics tell only part of the story. Soler knows what he is capable of having already pass through the tests that 2016 has put in front of him, and now that the door for him to spend the bulk of the remaining weeks of the season in left field looks wide open, he’s left to simply keep mashing. And keep that hamstring healthy.
Lead photo courtesy Kelley L. Cox—USA Today Sports.