CHICAGO -- Back in 2012, when the Chicago Cubs signed Jorge Soler, the words most commonly attached to the then--20-year-old Cuban were "powerful" and "raw." After a drawn-out process of negotiation and bureaucratic red tape, the Cubs finally signed Soler to a nine-year, $30 million deal that represented one of the first major acquisitions of the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer front office in Chicago.
After signing, Soler stopped by Wrigley Field to meet with the media and take a little batting practice. The power was on full display, as he pumped pitch after pitch into and over the bleachers at the old ballpark. Since then, Soler has been working to eliminate the "raw" part of his description, and that process might be further along than it appeared to be earlier this season.
"Presence," Cubs pitcher Jon Lester said of what Soler can bring to the table. "He’s a big feller."
Soler seemed poised for a breakout after his impressive 2015 postseason, when he hit .474/.600/1.105 over seven games. But during his first 50 games this season, Soler hit just .223/.322/.377 with only two more home runs (five) than he hit in last year’s playoffs. On June 7, Soler was placed on the disabled list with a strained hamstring, a malady that sidelined him for nearly two months.
Meanwhile, the Cubs kept winning without him, and Soler’s name even came up in the whisper mill near the trade deadline when the Cubs combed the marketplace for bullpen help. Finally, with the deadline past and the rehab complete, Soler was activated on the big league roster on Aug. 5.
"He just makes our lineup that much deeper," catcher David Ross said. "When he was out, from a catcher’s standpoint, when you can see the lineup shortening. You see that if you can get past a guy, it gets a little easier. When Jorge is in there, it just makes it a really deep lineup."
Soler has looked more like the playoff version of himself since his return than the one who struggled. In 10 games, Soler has hit .379/.438/.828 with four homers. The last was a doozy, a low-slung 450-foot shot off Milwaukee's Jimmy Nelson on Wednesday that, if it hadn’t run into the back of the bleachers, might still be going. The three-run shot gave the Cubs an early 5-0 cushion that made life easy for Lester.
"He just lengthens our lineup," Lester said. "I love our lineup. Any time you have Javy [Baez] hitting at the bottom of the lineup, and [Addison Russell] has moved up, it just adds length. It makes that other pitcher have to work to get to the bottom of the order."
The Cubs' patience with Soler is paying off.
"That’s why the ball is being struck as well as it is," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He’s really staying in the zone. He’s been very patient.
"That's something [the coaching staff] promotes with him all the time. With all of our hitters, but with him it’s really obvious that in the zone, when he’s not permitting the pitcher to expand, he’s really good."
For Soler, the key for turning raw potential into raw production has always been his yin-and-yang battle with the strike zone. This was a strength during his minor league days, but sometimes translating plate discipline to the big league level is a challenge, and so it has been for Soler. Last season, he walked just 32 times in 404 plate appearances while striking out 121 times. This season, before going on the DL, his walk rate was fine, but he was striking out nearly a quarter of the time.
Though 10 games is just a sampler, Soler seems to be getting a grip on the strike zone -- not just in terms of working the count, but also by punishing the pitches he can do damage with. He’s only walked three times during the hot stretch, but he’s also struck out just five times -- a rate about 10 percent less than his pre-injury games.
Soler is swinging and missing 14 percent less often than before the DL stint, chasing fewer pitches and getting more pitches in the zone. Before returning, he saw an average of 3.86 pitches per plate appearance; since then, he’s at 4.38. And, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Soler has displayed a proficiency in the lower half of the strike zone.
"When Jorge is swinging it well, he’s a huge part of this team," Ross said. "He’s a presence with his power in the lineup, against lefties and righties. He's just not missing the ball. It's fun."
The Cubs' need for a lefty power bat to compensate for the absence of injured Kyle Schwarber has been a popular topic of discussion since April, but if the righty-hitting Soler keeps going like this, the unbalanced handedness of the roster might not be such a big deal after all.