Cubs' prospect Soler getting into swing of things
The cage at the Class A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers' ballpark is tucked behind a concession stand, and while workers sat nearby sorting nacho chips, Soler made the narrow metal building reverberate with each powerful swing.
"There's a nice sound that comes off his bat, which is, I'm sure, why everyone's excited about what he's capable of doing," said Tom Beyers, the Cubs' Minor League hitting coordinator. "You can hear that in the cage and hear that on the field. He's an exciting guy. I love the passion he has -- he shows a lot of passion. He's always smiling. So far from what I've seen, he's really soaking things in and wants to learn."
Soler, 20, has the potential to be an impact player on the Cubs, which is why the team signed him to a nine-year, $30 million contract.
"He's a special player," Beyers said. "He's capable of doing a lot of special things."
On Saturday night, Soler showed what's possible, going 4-for-5 with a solo home run and RBI double in Class A Peoria's 9-2 win over Wisconsin. He singled to right in the second inning, lined a single to left in the fifth, launched the ball over the center-field wall in the sixth, and doubled to left with two outs and one on in the five-run seventh. He is definitely not overmatched.
The Cubs are doing their best to ease Soler into life in the U.S. He played for the Cuban national team in the 2010 World Junior Baseball Championship, where he hit .304, and defected in 2011. He did not play organized baseball in several months because of the tenuous process of establishing residency and resolving immigration issues. He was first assigned to the Mesa Rookie League team, and played 14 games before being promoted to Peoria.
"It's important for us to give him an opportunity to play himself back into game shape," Beyers said. "He's real conscious about the approach side of the game. That's an area he wants to learn. The mechanics side is one thing Barbaro [Garbey] communicated with him. When he was in Mesa, we allowed him to go out and let him show us some things on his own. We'll address the mechanical things at a later date if needed."
Garbey is key. The Chiefs' hitting coach, Garbey, 55, was the first Cuban-born player to defect, arriving in the U.S. in 1980 with 125,000 others on the "Freedom Flotilla." At that time, Fidel Castro lifted his no-exit edict, and Cubans could leave, but with only the clothes they had on. Garbey survived, eventually signed with the Tigers, and played on the 1984 World Series team.
"Baseball is a little different here than in Cuba," Soler said through Peoria player/coach Kenny Socorro. "In Cuba, the players weren't as polished as these guys are. I see a lot more talented young guys, throwing in the low 90s with good breaking balls. I didn't see that day in and day out."
It's not just Soler who has to make that adjustment.
"Most of our high school and college Draft picks in general have to deal with that," Beyers said. "It's not necessarily that they're seeing more breaking balls, but the way they're spotting them and the command of them, and that gives our high school players and young Latin players and the Asian players a tough time at the beginning of their careers."
Soler is dealing with new pitches and new foods in a new country. It's hard to find the Cuban staple, rice and beans. He'll get help from his roommate, catcher Yaniel Cabezas, 23, who also played for the Cuban national team before defecting. Cabezas signed with much less fanfare in December 2010.
When Soler arrived in Peoria, he knew about five English words. Some players watch television to pick up phrases, but Soler said he doesn't do that.
"Any time he wants to ask something, I'll say, 'Try it in English first,'" Socorro said. "I'm sure it will come more natural to him."
What won't be easy is not being home. Soler's mother and 16-year-old sister are still in Cuba. When asked what he missed most, he said family.
"Barbaro has been through what he's gone through -- I can't think of a better place to send him," Beyers said.
Then there's the quirkiness of the Minor Leagues. Soler was on-deck waiting to lead off the second and had to step aside as a tricycle race was completed near the visitor's dugout. He wasn't fazed by that or the motorized miniature race cars that nearly ran him over on the on-deck circle in the sixth. He walked up to the plate, fell behind 0-2, then homered, sending the ball 400 feet to center, just left of the batter's eye.
He seems to be handling the assimilation process. Peoria teammates Pin-Chieh Chen and Yao-Lin Wang, both from Taiwan, probably haven't seen "Bratzooka" either (that's when bratwurst are fired into the stands).
A Chiefs player joked that Soler gets his own seat on the team bus because he's so big, no one wants to mess with him. It should be noted that Soler has a huge smile to match his physique. Cubs manager Dale Sveum compared the young Cuban physically to former big league outfielder Glenn Braggs.
"Hopefully, it all translates into a huge productive player at this level," Sveum said.
He's on the fast track. Soler's first pro home run came in his second game in Mesa on July 22; his first home run with the Chiefs was a grand slam Aug. 11. In six games with the Chiefs, he's batting .391 with a .739 slugging percentage.
Before Peoria's season ends Sept. 3, the Cubs will decide whether to send Soler to instructional league or have him play in the Arizona Fall League. Teams send their top prospects -- and those they consider close to being Major League ready -- to the AFL.
"He's a specimen," Beyers said. "He's 19, 20 years old. You look at him, and sometimes you look at what went on with the contract and the media attention, and you have to remind yourself that you have a young kid here who is in his first year in the United States, a new country, and what he had to go through to get here."