It has been an up-and-down journey to the big leagues for Jorge Soler. He came to the United States from Cuba in 2011, first establishing residency Haiti and later becoming an international free agent in June of 2012. Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs signed him to his first contract, a nine-year deal worth $30 million. It was a major leap of faith on the hulking, 20-year-old outfielder who had just 15 professional plate appearances in Cuba.
Soler quickly rose up the prospect rankings. He batted .338/.398/.513 in 20 games at Low-A for the Cubs in 2012, and his rare combination of batting eye, contact, and power had scouts gushing about his future. Prior to the 2013 season, Baseball America had him ranked as the 34th-best prospect in the game.
The next year in the minors was tumultuous for Soler, including a shin injury that limited him to 55 games played at High-A and an ugly incident where he charged the opposing dugout while wielding a bat like a weapon. In 2014, he was healthy and ripping the cover off the ball once again. He posted a .415/.494/.862 slash line in 79 plate appearances at Double-A, earning a quick call to Triple-A Iowa. He had a .996 OPS in 32 games there, and by August he was making his major league debut.
The excitement for Soler among Cub fans peaked that summer. While the team was out of contention by the time he arrived, he provided several glimpses of what appeared to be a bright future in Chicago. First came a monster home run in his first big league at-bat.
Just days later came arguably the moment when the young Cubs announced themselves ready to take over the NL Central. In a night game at Busch Stadium, Soler dazzled with two home runs in a Cub victory. The second one may have hit the Arch on a bounce.
“Do you hear that buzz,” commented Cub play-by-play man Len Kasper on the stunned crowd in St. Louis. “There are… about 39,000 Cardinal fans, and they’re all going ‘What was that?’ You better get used to him.”
After being ranked the No. 12 prospect by Baseball America heading into 2015, Soler struggled to stay healthy yet again in his rookie season. It became apparent that he was a poor defender, and his many nagging leg injuries had left him a below-average runner. His value was almost entirely in his bat, which was frequently frustrating. The outstanding batting eye had disappeared, and the 23-year-old hit .262/.324/.399 with -0.1 WAR in 404 plate appearances that year.
But Kasper’s statement was prophetic in one very big way: Soler did torture Card fans during his tenure with the Cubs. He hit 4-for-7 with a double, two home runs, and six walks in the team’s four-game NLDS ousting of the 100-win Cardinals that October. In his regular season career at the end of the 2017 season, Soler had a .915 OPS in 32 games against St. Louis.
Soler struggled once again in 2016, both with his health and his performance. By October he was making infrequent cameo appearances, batting 2-for-13 in the Cubs’ playoff run that ended in their first World Series championship in 108 seasons. That offseason, Chicago sent him to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for closer Wade Davis.
The fresh start didn’t help. Injuries and poor performance, once again, took a toll. Soler played in just 35 games in the big leagues for Kansas City, hitting an ugly .144/.245/.258 with 36 strikeouts in 110 plate appearances. Now nearly 26 years old, with an accumulated 875 plate appearances in the majors and -0.3 WAR on his record, the question is whether the once-promising-slugger can even become a regular in the big leagues.
According to Maria Torres of The Kansas City Star, Soler is working hard this offseason to make that happen.
“This is not the Jorge Soler the Royals last saw in September. This is a version of Soler cultivated through a longer-than-normal offseason training schedule, one who put a halt to months worth of sulking so he could try to become the power bat the Royals thought they acquired from the Cubs in the December 2016 trade of closer Wade Davis.
“This is the version of Soler who, 20 pounds lighter thanks to an improved diet, is finally ready for a second chance.
“’I had an awful season,’ said Soler, who’s listed by the Royals at 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds. ‘Things went fine in the minor leagues but not in the big leagues. Obviously there were things I was doing wrong. I needed to make adjustments… I don’t know how it’ll translate to the field but in the cage there’s an incredible change. I’ve never felt this way.’”
Soler’s path to recapturing his career has one obvious caveat, and that is his inability to regularly play a defensive position. With the Royals last season, 16 of the 25 games he started were in either right or left field. The other nine came at DH, which is where his future should be. For the sake of both keeping him healthy and maximizing his total value, the Royals should commit to Soler as the regular designated hitter in 2018.
That is, assuming his adjustments truly make a difference. In his career, it’s no secret that Soler has murdered high fastballs, but given a breaking pitch, he swings and misses 57 percent of the time. He’s hitting .134 in his career against curveballs and .169 against sliders.
The talent is still there, as it always has been. The videos don’t lie: Soler can hit the ball a long way when he makes contact. Too often, the batting eye that he was lauded for in the minors disappeared in the big leagues, leaving the struggling batter to swing farther out of the zone at breaking pitches. But if Soler can make those adjustments, who knows what could come of his career?