Before we get started, I want to reiterate my long-running skepticism of Jorge Soler’s ability to reach his full potential. We can and will get into some of the details of that here in a bit, but I felt the need to let you know where I’m coming from right off the jump. Please understand that this doesn’t mean I think Soler is bad or that there’s no place for him on this Cubs team, even though it looks at times like there’s kinda not.
We knew heading into the season that Soler was going to be a bench bat, what with Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber manning the corner OF spots on a regular basis. A season-ending injury to the latter opened the door to some extra playing time, though it hasn’t necessarily gone Soler. While the big Cuban saw more time in left early on, Joe Maddon has been opting for Kris Bryant out there of late.
In fact, seven of Bryant’s last nine starts have come in either left or right and he moved from 3B to LF in another. That trend has been as much about accommodating Javy Baez and Tommy La Stella as anything, but it’s not just the reigning Rookie of the Year or the free agent Gold Glove right fielder who have displaced Soler. With Heyward scratched due to a sore wrist, Matt Szczur started in right on Monday night in Pittsburgh. On Wednesday, it was Ben Zobrist’s name on the lineup card batting fifth and playing right (with Bryant in left).
Say what you will about Maddon’s decision to start Zobrist out there — a move that actually looks really smart after the veteran smacked a 3-run homer in the 3rd off Juan Nicasio — the skipper doesn’t have a great deal of faith in Soler at this point. I can’t blame him either. Between the Cubs’ win-now mentality, the emergence of a few other players, and Soler’s struggles at the plate and in the field, there’s simply no room or even desire to give him the kind of everyday at-bats a developing player needs in order to improve.
If that sounds a little harsh, so be it. The Cubs aren’t in a position to bring a guy along slowly and hope that he can find a way to reach his ceiling, especially not when there are other guys earning that playing time. It’s about providing value right now, not hoping that someone might be able to eventually blossom into the type of player who can provide value down the road.
That’s a difficult thing for many fans to grapple with, especially since Soler has shown some flashes of being really, really good. There’s the massive power displayed as he routinely racks up batted-ball velocities of 100+ mph and the fact that he reached base safely in his first nine postseason at-bats. And then there’s the hulking physique that makes him look more like he should be playing rush end for the Bears.
Unless and until Soler is able to put those tools and traits together on a consistent basis, however, he’s going to continue finding himself at the bottom of the Cubs’ depth chart. And therein lies the catch-22 of the whole situation. A player can’t improve if he’s not getting regular at-bats, but a team can’t improve if the best players aren’t getting regular at-bats.
Okay, then you just send Soler down to Iowa to get everyday at-bats and time in left so he can make the necessary adjustments, right? Well, maybe. You have to question whether he’s really going to improve his approach and get his timing down by facing AAA pitching. Then again, he’s not going to get better just languishing on the bench in Chicago either. It’s certainly a bit of a quandary, and not just for Soler.
I’m hesitant to question the motives and moves of either Maddon or the front office, but I have to take issue with the way they’ve handled this Soler situation from the start. Soler’s name came up pretty frequently in offseason trade rumors, and I don’t think I was alone in believing a deal would have been consummated shortly after the announcement that Heyward had signed in Chicago. Of course, there existed for a while the possibility that J-Hey would play center. Then Dexter Fowler signed and Soler became pretty redundant.
Even though we’ve seen Schwarber, Heyward, and Szczur sidelined with varying degrees of injury, Soler continues to be passed over for regular starting time. Do you see where I’m going here? The guy’s value was probably as high as it was going to get following that aforementioned playoff performance, yet everything he and the Cubs have done since has served only to bring that value down.
I know that might be a little unfair since we’re looking at this in hindsight and we don’t have all the information about the various trades or the little intricate details that go into Maddon’s decision-making. Still, the Cubs now appear to be holding onto a depreciating asset — yes, it’s cold to refer to a human being that way, but I’m talking more in terms of what he’s worth to the team. Soler isn’t helping them much on the field and isn’t worth as much on the trade market as he would have a few months ago.
It’s still possible that Soler is able to reach his ceiling, though I’m increasingly inclined to believe that he’s going to have a hard time squeezing that frame through a window that appears to be closing. At the same time, he only just turned 24 in February and still has only 576 MLB plate appearances to his name. It’d be much easier to write him off were he a few years older and/or more experience.
That said, I can’t help but thinking of Wily Mo Pena when I look at Soler. I’m sure both people who have actually read this far into the post have now either thrown up their hands or groaned, or both, but I’m just sharing in writing what I’ve shared in past conversations. You may recall Pena as a burly (6-3/268) masher who came up with the Reds in 2002 and hit 26 homers in 2004. He was a mediocre fielder with a tendency to swing and miss a lot and enough potential to keep him bouncing around the game for the better part of a decade.
Over the course of his career, Pena logged 1,845 plate appearances and had a slash line of .250/.303/.445 with a 6.0% walk rate, 30.3% strikeout rate, and a wRC+ of 91. His lifetime WAR was 0.4. In essence, we’re talking about a decidedly average player. Soler, by comparison, has slashed .258/.319/416 with an 8.0% walk rate, a 28% strikeout rate, a wRC+ of 99 and 0.1 WAR. In essence, we’re talking about a decidedly average player.
The difference, however, is that one of those lines came from a player who never reached his potential, while the other has been posted by a young man who still has plenty of time to make some things happen. Of course, how he’s going to accomplish that remains a bit of a mystery. It’s probably not gonna come from seeing AAA pitching or from seeing MLB pitching on an infrequent basis. Soler’s best shot at getting the at-bats necessary to really grow might come from being traded, though it’s unlikely the Cubs would be able to get an adequate return at this point in time.
Whether you wan to call me a pessimist or an awful person or worse, I just don’t see Jorge Soler developing into the player many thought/think he could be. Javy Baez may never make good on the promises made by his swing — oh, that swing — either, but his speed, athleticism, and ability to play multiple positions at a very high level provide him a very nice ladder. Soler, on the other hand, lacks those traits and is thus left standing on a step-stool and stretching for his ceiling.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that despite all my fears otherwise, we’ll see the bat heat up as the weather does the same. Maybe Soler turns it around and makes me look like Chicken Little — The ceiling is falling! The ceiling is falling! — while leading the Cubs back to the postseason. Then again, maybe he doesn’t.
Maybe, and I know this is a huge stretch here, Soler really is exactly what the numbers to this point suggest: a replacement-level player. I know that sounds like heresy to those who harbor boatloads of affection for the guy, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. Because you know what? Having a guy like that on your bench earning $4.4 million AAV (roughly the MLB average) over the next four seasons is not a bad thing in the least.
By now I’ve probably already rambled to long, so I set about wrapping it up. This seems to be a pretty polarizing topic, at least in social media circles, so I wanted to present my thoughts in a more measured and nuanced format. Everyone has an opinion on Soler and they all seem to think they’re right (though there have been some really great takes out there too). I guess I’m no different in that I also think I’m right.
However, it’s my sincere hope that Georgie Sunshine eventually lights up and proves me dead wrong.