MESA, Ariz. -- If Kris Bryant was never drafted by the Chicago Cubs it’s safe to say their starting right fielder heading into the 2015 season would be getting a lot more publicity. The Cubs have had plenty of athletes on their team over the years but few possessed the physical presence combined with the quickness and speed of Jorge Soler.
And his baseball skills aren’t bad either.
His strength is massive, moving teammates to call him a freak. How many broken-bat hits can you envision Soler earning? Balls that would be easy pop-up outs will fall to the outfield from the sheer strength of the man hitting them. With a keener eye than most would imagine, Soler has a chance to be a rare power hitter that hits for a high batting average. And his on-base percentage will be lofty as well. That’s how you win Rookie of the Year awards. More than one observer has called him Vladimir Guerrero with a better eye. On defense, the ball looks like it’s been delivered from a rocket launcher when he comes up throwing from right field. He’s the full package.
But no matter how talented Soler is it’s still not going to come as easy as it may look. Mostly because of injuries, Soler played the equivalent of just one full major league season in the minors over a five-year span. He had a great start to his big league career at the end of last year but still struck out 24 times to just six walks. His adjustment period hasn’t hit yet. And he may not have the experience to adapt quickly when it does. He might hit for a high batting average over his career, but perhaps he won't this year. That might be the biggest difference between Soler and Bryant -- and the difference between one winning Rookie of the Year and one not.
At this moment in time Bryant looks to be a once-in-a-generation type of hitter, not because of his power but because of his head. He may not have a need for a hitting coach -- he’s his own. Even after hitting 43 home runs and winning minor league player of the year in 2014 Bryant challenged himself to get better. His goal? Master the lower part of the strike zone. His 6-foot-5 frame means getting to those low pitches can be the most difficult for him. That may not be the case after this spring as Bryant went deep on three or four balls that were normally too low for him to knock out, in his estimation.
“In order to get to that pitch I have to get below the ball and come up to it to hit it squarely,” Bryant explained recently. “I’m always working on getting low. I spread my stance and drive my back knee down to the ground just to get my back path below that pitch. Being tall I have to do that so I do a lot of low-tee drills just to work on that back knee driving toward the ground. Especially this offseason I was working on that a lot. That’s where the pitcher wants to throw it because they want me to hit a ground ball. Why would I want to do that?”
That’s not a veteran talking, that’s a player who’s never had an at-bat in the majors. Looking past the home runs, when Bryant makes it to the major leagues in a few weeks watch how long his slumps last. They’ll be a lot shorter than most young players -- and maybe most veterans. Does anyone remember he hit .325 last year? Or .425 this spring? That included a four-hit game and none of those hits left the yard. It’s for these reasons, plus the 25-30 balls that will leave the park, that Bryant could very well be the best of the rookie crop in the NL.
And he might have a little extra motivation after being sent to the minors despite a monster spring that produced a 1.175 slugging percentage. If Bryant is upset about being sent down there’s one way he’ll most likely take out his anger -- on the baseball.
It’s only fitting that the best player in college in 2013, the Arizona Fall League MVP several months later and the reigning minor league player of the year takes home the National League Rookie of the Year award. Don’t bet against it.