MESA, Ariz. — Veteran outfielder Darnell McDonald calls him “King James.” As in LeBron James. As in the former hoops prodigy turned NBA legend.
So, to the Chicago Cubs official who asked me with a smile, “Don’t crank up the hype machine too far,” I can offer only one possible response:
Your own players are doing the cranking!
“He’s legit, a physical specimen, impressive bat speed — and a rocket arm, too,” outfielder Scott Hairston says.
And left fielder Alfonso Soriano, who knows something about phenoms — remember his two homers and MVP performance in the 1999 Futures Game at Fenway Park? — sounds equally excited.
“He’s going to be something,” Soriano says.
The player in question, outfielder Jorge Soler, turns 21 on Monday. Recently, club president Theo Epstein said to one of the Cubs’ veterans, “Not bad for a 20-year-old, huh?”
“Twenty?” the player replied. “I thought he was 25!”
Soler looks the part at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. The surprising thing is, he acts the part, too, displaying uncommon maturity — not just with his offensive approach, but also his defense and baserunning.
We’re talking about a kid who didn’t play a game between the 2010 World Junior Championships and his debut in the Cubs’ system last summer, a gap of approximately two years.
During that time, Soler defected from Cuba, established residency in Haiti and received clearance from the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, enabling him to sign with a major-league club.
The Cubs went all-in on him, eager to land a major foreign talent before new restrictions on international spending took effect. Their winning bid for Soler — $30 million over nine years — was a record for a 20-year-old.
At the time, the Cubs had seen Soler only at junior international tournaments and at their own academy in the Dominican Republic. But if Soler, a right-handed hitter, becomes the next Giancarlo Stanton, the deal actually could prove a bargain. A major bargain.
Soler, outfielder Alberto Almora, right-hander Arodys Vizcaino and of course, first baseman Anthony Rizzo – all possess impact talent, and all have entered the organization in the approximately 16 months since the Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime took control.
Slowly but surely, the Cubs are coming around.
The success of Rizzo last season gave the rebuilding program immediate credibility. Cubs fans, though, are rightly wary of any top prospect, given the organization’s history with the Corey Pattersons of the world.
Soler’s professional resume consists of only 149 plate appearances between rookie ball and low A (and, ahem, a .338 batting average, .398 on-base percentage and .513 slugging average in 88 plate appearances at low A). He will start the season at a higher level of A ball, and his ETA as a regular at Wrigley Field, if everything goes well, is probably no earlier than 2015.
Until then, all the usual caveats about prospects apply. Still, the Cubs can’t help but like what they see.
Last Thursday, Soler hit a home run in the first at-bat of his first intrasquad game off the Cubs’ minor-league pitcher of the year, Nick Struck. But it was his second at-bat that the Cubs’ coaches are still talking about. Soler got down 0-2 in the count and then laid off some tough pitches, working a walk.
“He’s disciplined beyond his age,” Cubs hitting coach James Rowson says. “He’s kind of ahead of the game. He’s out there taking aggressive hacks. But he’s swinging at good pitches, laying off some tough breaking balls early in camp. He’s exciting, fun to watch.”
In his first Cactus League game on Saturday, Soler hit a hard ground ball down the third-base line for an RBI double. His swing looks somewhat familiar; he has adopted Soriano as a mentor — and Soriano’s bat waggle as part of the timing mechanism in his load.
Soler, though, could develop into a more patient hitter and better defender than Soriano ever was.
The Cubs were aware of Soler’s plate discipline; he drew walks and showed a feel for the strike zone even as a young amateur. But they didn’t realize they were getting a player who is so dedicated to developing his all-around game.
“What has been really impressive, all last year and so far in camp, is how into defense and baserunning he is,” Epstein says. “He shows a really good first step in the outfield, takes good routes and has a plus arm with a lot of accuracy and carry. He also has showed a real interest in stolen bases. He was almost perfect last year (12 for 13).”
The great ones play with an edge. Soler displays that type of confidence, too.
“You joke with him, ‘Are you afraid to steal third?’ And he laughs at you,” says Dave McKay, the Cubs’ first base coach and outfield instructor. “He’s not afraid to play.”
The Cubs actually tried Soler in center field last fall in the Instructional League, and he handled himself well, Epstein says. Almora, however, is the center fielder of the future. Soler’s long-term position is right.
“The way he moves, catches the ball, it’s just like a veteran guy,” McKay says. “And he does the right things. He comes up, his throws are low, hard, accurate, straight. He doesn’t overthrow.”
To think, everything is new to Soler. As Epstein points out, this is the kid’s first spring training, his first time in the US in February. Yet, he impresses the Cubs not only with his poise but also his personality.
I’m trying not to crank up the hype machine, I really am. But if the Cubs’ people can’t help themselves, why should I?
“He has a chance to be a beast,” Rowson says. “This guy is a monster.”