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Soler, Almora sharing digs and a big league dream

MESA, Ariz. -- A giddy Albert Almora walked into the cafeteria at the Cubs' Spring Training complex last week for his first day of workouts, extended his hand to a group of new teammates and began speaking English to the person seated in front of him.

Jorge Soler looked up with a puzzled looked on his face. He didn't understand what was being said.

"Oh, it's Soler," Almora said.

Then the pair smiled and began speaking in Spanish, resuming a conversation that began almost two years prior. Soler, the club's $30 million sign out of Cuba, and Almora, the team's No. 1 pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, once competed against each other on the international stage. Today the young outfielders are not only Arizona Rookie League teammates, they are roommates sharing the same hotel room and the same dream.

Soler, 20, who signed a nine-year deal with the Cubs last month, made his professional debut against the Arizona Rookie League Mariners on Thursday and went 0-for-3. Almora, 18, took batting practice but will not make his debut until the club believes he is ready, though that could be soon.

"I'm very proud to have signed with the Cubs," said the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Soler. "I like this team and am very happy they signed me. Clearly, I want to play in the Major Leagues. I don't know how much time I need here. It's up to [management], but that's my goal."

The short-term plan for Soler, who served as the designated hitter on Thursday, is to play the outfield on Saturday. The long-term plan is to play in the big leagues, but the club is not ready to set a timetable.

"You just want him to learn the system, get to know his teammates and his coaches," said Oneri Fleita, the club's vice president of player personnel. "When you have ability like he has, I'm confident everything will fall into place. To sit here and say where he is going to play next week or next month or next year is asking too much right now. Right now our plan is day to day, and let everything fall into place."

Soler's day-to-day life is fairly mundane, especially when you consider everything he has gone through to get to this point. He defected last year, attempted to establish residency in the Dominican Republic -- the first step to becoming a free agent -- and gained residence in Haiti. He was declared a free agent last month and shined during a series of showcases.

"Since we met him, the kid has always had a great smile and is very enthusiastic," Fleita said. "He's always engaged. He's a real big kid in a real big body. Soler has been great."

Soler is also far from home. Most of his family remains in Cuba, and he admits that leaving his loved ones behind was the hardest part of his decision to defect. His father is in the Dominican Republic and the two could reunite soon. Soler would love to see the rest of his family join him in the U.S., but he's not sure if that will ever happen.

"I've always adapted quickly to situations I'm in, and I'm still doing that," Soler said. "The life here, I'm adapting."

Almora is doing his part to help, and it appears the teenager has found a baseball brother in Soler. In some ways, Almora also sees his father. As did Soler, Alberto Almora Sr. left Cuba under difficult circumstances in pursuit of the American dream.

"My dad didn't understand English, either," Almora said. "I've heard all the stories from my dad, and I heard Soler's story and how he got here. It's crazy, but it's very real. Cuba is obviously a big part of my life."

Sometimes Soler and Almora watch DVDs of old games, recalling when Soler's Cuban Junior National team eliminated Almora's Team USA squad from medal contention in the IBAF World Junior Championships in Canada. Soler went 1-for-3, including an RBI double, in the 3-2 victory over the USA that day and finished with a .304 batting average in the tournament. Almora, then 16, went 0-for-1 and finished with a .125 average in limited action.

It's hard to blame Almora for not seeing much playing time that year. His 18-and-under team was loaded with talent, including eventual 2011 first-round picks Francisco Lindor (Cleveland), Bubba Starling (Kansas City), Blake Swihart (Red Sox) and Henry Owens (Red Sox), along with Lance McCullers, who selected by the Astros with the 41st pick last month.

The winning pitcher for Cuba that day was Omar Luis, who signed a Minor League deal with the Yankees last month.

But don't feel sorry for Almora. He has played for Team USA a record-tying six times and has won five gold medals.

"I like Almora," Soler said. "He's a good kid. He's young, very young, but he's a good kid. We have a good time."

Times could get even better for Soler, who hopes to eventually play on the same team as childhood friend Gerardo Concepcion, who is pitching at Class A Peoria. Concepcion, who signed a $6 million deal with the Cubs after defecting, and Soler have known each other since they were 13.

But in the meantime, Soler and Almora have games to play and work to do, and more baseball DVDs to watch.

"They are two young kids starting their careers out with great aspirations and dreams of playing in the Major Leagues with hopes to play next to each other for a long time," Fleita said. "It's a relationship that got off on a right foot, and it's going to be real fun to watch it grow and develop together."

Chicago Cubs