Cubs scout knew Soler was special from start
Eljaua, who first saw rookie in '09, not surprised by motivated outfielder's emergence
CHICAGO -- Louie Eljaua remembers the first time he saw Jorge Soler in 2009, and he recalls how impressed he was at the then-teenage outfielder's size and skills. And Eljaua isn't surprised that Soler has made a smooth transition to the big leagues, saying the 22-year-old was motivated after seeing five Cuban players in this year's All-Star Game.
"[Soler] felt he could be as good or better as those guys," said Eljaua, special assistant to the general manager and director of international operations for the Cubs. "He said, 'Maybe I'll be there next year.'"
The Cubs would like to see Soler included among the elite players. Could he be an All-Star in 2015? Anything's possible.
Since Soler's promotion from Triple-A Iowa on Aug. 27, the Cubs' No. 5-ranked prospect has been on the fast track. He is 12-for-26 with five doubles and three home runs, and on Wednesday, he hit a two-run double in the Cubs' 6-2 win over the Brewers. Soler has at least one RBI in six of his first seven big league games, and he is the second player in franchise history with at least 10 or more RBIs in his first seven career games. He's the first in Major League Baseball with an extra-base hit and an RBI in his first four big league games.
On Friday, Soler's parents and his younger sister will be at Wrigley Field to see him play there for the first time. It's been a long journey.
Eljaua was in Venezuela scouting a junior national baseball tournament in September 2009 when he first saw Soler, who was starting in left for the Cuban team. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were on the U.S. squad, which beat the Cubans twice, including a 6-1 win in the championship. Soler homered in the first meeting with the U.S. squad.
"He was impressive from a baseball standpoint, a tools standpoint," Eljaua said. "We see all kinds of players, all shapes and sizes, but when you see a kid that physically impressive and strong with the tools, it gets your attention. He played third base at the time. When we were scouting him in the Dominican, we let him take ground balls at third because it was his favorite position at the time."
Cubs fans can relax -- Soler won't be challenging top prospect Kris Bryant for third base next year.
Eljaua said the Cubs were scouting both Yoenis Cespedes and Soler in 2012.
"Probably Soler was a better fit for us for what we were trying to accomplish building the organization, signing players for the future, acquiring young talent," Eljaua said. "That's not to say we didn't like Cespedes, because we did, but if we had to fit one or the other, this was a better fit."
The Cubs eventually signed Soler to a nine-year, $30 million contract in June 2012, and the assimilation began.
"When we signed him, we thought he'd be a guy who could come relatively quick because of his tool set, because of his advanced strike-zone awareness," Eljaua said. "He's been a kid who showed you the ability to put together good at-bats and not be a free swinger. He has strike-zone discipline and knowledge.
"All the great hitters have that innate ability to be selectively aggressive, if you want to call it that. He always had that ability and showed that to us."
But Eljaua was a little surprised at how quickly Soler advanced this year because of setbacks with injuries. The outfielder was limited to 55 games last season because of a fractured left shin, and in his first at-bat with Double-A Tennessee this year, he suffered a right hamstring strain. Soler spent a majority of the season in Mesa, Ariz., to rehab at the Cubs' spring complex. The medical staff did more than strengthen his legs; they overhauled his diet, his posture, how he runs.
It was when Soler rejoined Tennessee that he proclaimed it was his time, and he produced, batting .415 in 22 games there. And he then batted .282 in 32 games at Triple-A Iowa before his callup.
"I always knew if he stayed on the field consistently, it would be a matter of time before he would get here," Eljaua said, sitting in the Cubs' dugout at Wrigley Field.
Soler is motivated. His father came to the U.S. when Soler did in 2012, and his mother and sister just joined them this year. Soler also is expecting his first child, due Sept. 15.
"Everything came to fruition at the same time, and he stayed healthy and really took off," Eljaua said.
Eljaua is Cuban, although he was born in the U.S. His parents were able to obtain a visa in the 1960s. Eljaua has not talked to Soler about the details of his defection. It's personal.
"I know it's not an easy decision or an easy choice to make," Eljaua said.
In April 2013 while playing for Class A Advanced Daytona, Soler was in the headlines for the wrong reasons when he was suspended five games for approaching the opposing team's dugout wielding a bat.
"Some of the stuff that was written about him that happened last year is out of character for him," Eljaua said. "It's part of the learning curve and process of being in this country. The Cubans have a little different learning process because of where they come from, the culture, the political situation, what they have access to, what they don't have access to.
"It takes a while to adjust to things in this country, both on the field and off the field," he said. "That's true of the Latin kids in general, but I would say with the Cubans, there are different challenges that some kids don't face."
Eljaua said some of the details of the incident were exaggerated, but he would not go into details. He did not expect to ever see Soler have an outburst like that again.
"We know the type of kid he is, and he's a good kid," Eljaua said.
In the offseason, Soler will return to Florida to be with his family. Several of the Cuban Major Leaguers live near each other and train together. That also helps in the transition to the big leagues.
"He's a good-looking kid, great smile, good personality," Eljaua said of Soler. "As an organization, as people who were involved in the whole process with him, it's fun to watch and hopefully just a glimpse of things to come."