PHOENIX, Ariz. -- This is why Jorge Soler and Javier Baez weren’t moved in the offseason. The Chicago Cubs were tempted. There were all sorts of deals on the table, according to league sources. Two-team deals, three-team deals, deals for starters and relievers. But without getting a maximum return, the front office figured they would make do with their pitching staff and retain the deepest lineup in the league.
“No one is going to replace Kyle Schwarber, but we have a lot of talented players that need to step up to the forefront,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said Friday not long after the news came out that Schwarber would be lost for the season.
Epstein didn’t say it, but we all know who is No. 1 on that list: 24-year-old Cuban-born Soler.
Soler has been thrust back into the spotlight after Schwarber tore two ligaments in his knee in a collision with center fielder Dexter Fowler on Thursday night. It’s a play Soler probably would not have been injured on considering his below-average ability to track down a fly ball. And if you think that’s harsh, Soler admitted early in spring he wasn’t “focused” last season until the playoffs, when he broke out. He reiterated that notion in discussing his new opportunity.
“Be more ready and focused in what I’m doing,” Soler said Friday through a translator.
The Cubs’ reluctance to trade him or Baez only matters if they perform. Baez should be back in a week or two, but it’s Soler’s time right now.
“He’s ready,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’ve talked to him all spring. He has enough instructions.”
The smirk on Maddon’s face told the story. The Cubs have been instructing and guiding Soler for a while now. Maddon rightly preached patience during the spring for the only Cuban and non-English-speaking player on the team. Undoubtedly the transition to the United States has been tough, but it’s been several years and it’s time to find out who Soler is as a player.
“I need to work before the game,” Soler said. “Shag fly balls.”
And the keen eye he displayed at the plate during his minor league career needs to return -- as it did against the Cardinals in the postseason, when he reached base nine consecutive times. Soler was asked if he was capable of hitting 30 to 40 home runs, something you might think by looking at his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame. But let’s start with some good at-bats. He’s already had a few this season, especially opening night in Anaheim. Will it continue?
Maddon indicated Kris Bryant might play some left field, as he did on Thursday when Schwarber left the game, but let’s face it: This is Soler’s gig for the foreseeable future. The Cubs still can have a special season despite the loss of the popular second-year player, but another second-year guy has to step up, in all facets of the game.
“We talked about our flexibility in spring training,” Maddon said. “It’s being tested early.”