PHOENIX—The influence of Cuban ballplayers in Major League Baseball has never been more evident than this year's postseason, with Yasiel Puig (Dodgers), Jose Iglesias (Tigers) and Yoenis Cespedes (Athletics) all playing key roles in their teams' success. The immediate impact of these and other recent émigrés has driven up prices for defecting Cuban players, evidenced by the White Sox signing this week of first baseman/DH Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million deal.
Meanwhile Jorge Soler, whom the Chicago Cubs signed in 2012 to a nine-year, $30 million contract, waits patiently for his chance in the big leagues.
The 21-year-old outfielder is currently playing for the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League, making up for time lost this season after a stress fracture in June to his left tibia sidelined Soler for the remainder of the regular season. He was off to a good start at high Class A Daytona, batting .281/.343/.467, albeit with several self-induced absences from the lineup earlier in the year.
Soler was first suspended for five games for a bat-wielding incident and later benched for a few games by Daytona manager Dave Keller for not hustling down the line on ground balls. Soler believes he learned a valuable lesson about how to respect the game from these incidents.
"I talked to them (Cubs management) and I apologized," Soler said through translator Albert Almora, a fellow Cubs teammate on the Solar Sox roster. "I know what I did and I just learned from that."
Adjusting to the American game has been a challenge for Soler, just like it is for other Cuban players coming to the United States.
"Baseball here is completely different," Soler said. "It's calmer here but it's more organized, and you respect the game a lot more here than you do over there."
Soler has earned kudos from Solar Sox skipper Bill Richardson and hitting coach Brian Harper for his hard work and attitude this fall. The extra effort he puts in belies the misconception that he isn't always hustling on the field.
"Right now he's not in baseball shape," said Harper, the Cubs' Triple-A Iowa hitting coach during the regular season "He missed three months where he couldn't run. He had a boot on for three months and he's not moving like he normally does . . . He's a really good kid and he works hard."
Richardson added that his first impression of Soler was that the young outfielder was not yet able to go full speed, and invited him to come out for early work. Soler agreed to the extra sessions, and Richardson, who managed the Angels' Rookie-level Orem team during the regular season, is already seeing a difference.
"He's definitely getting his baseball legs underneath him," Richardson said. "With that comes a lot of things— jumps off the bat in the outfield and also pitch selection. It's evolving . . . it's getting closer and closer each time he goes out there. That's why this is so valuable for him."
One change scouts have noticed about Soler is that he appears physically stronger this fall, not surprising since he was limited to what conditioning work he could do when his foot was in a boot during his injury rehab time.
"When I was hurt, all I did was upper body every day," Soler said. "That got me in really good shape."
One scout covering the AFL voiced a concern over Soler's approach at the plate, pointing out that he's trying to kill every pitch and showing vulnerability to good spin. But Harper believes that's also a result of the long layoff.
"One of the things before Jorge was hurt that was so unusual for a young hitter . . . Jorge was very disciplined at the plate and didn't chase pitches," Harper said. "What I see now is that he's missed a few months of baseball and he's a little out of control. That's not like him normally. I think it's more of this is like a spring training for him where he's trying to get the feel of his swing. He's usually not out of control . . . he's very controlled, and it's unusual for him."
Richardson didn't work with Soler before this AFL season, but he's already seeing progress in just the first two weeks.
"You can see it, he's not taking those wild hacks at bad pitches as much now," Richardson said. "When it gets contagious he's going to get some confidence back, and watch out."
Just as important as adapting to the American style of baseball has been Soler's adjustment to living in the United States compared to life in Cuba. In addition to the hurdle of learning the English language, Soler has had to adapt to a completely different culture.
"It's completely different from the lifestyle in Cuba," Soler said. "It's completely different from what I grew up doing. When you're in Cuba you can play in the streets; here you're limited in stuff like that."
Almora, whose family emigrated from Cuba to Florida before he was born, has been an invaluable companion to Soler in that adjustment. The two have been like brothers since they reported to the Cubs minor league facility within weeks of each other in July 2012. It's really been a valuable experience for both young men.
"To be honest, we do everything together," Almora, the Cubs' 2012 first-round pick, said. "Whenever he gives me advice, I listen. Whenever I give him advice, he listens. My advice to him isn't baseball-related, it's just life-related, like this is how it is here. He's a very good listener, he's very smart. It's definitely a mutual relationship . . . We talk between each other and we have a great relationship."
Almora's parents and Soler's father are visiting Arizona while their respective sons are playing ball. It's important for Soler to have that family tie since his mother and sister are still in Cuba. His dad, who has been preparing their native Cuban food while in Arizona, will be leaving soon, after which the Almora family will make sure Soler is taken good care of in his father's absence.
"When his dad leaves we will have him at our house," Almora said, "and he will be eating Cuban food. That will do him good."
• Mesa Solar Sox third baseman Kris Bryant (Cubs) and Surprise Saguaros OF Mitch Haniger (Brewers) were named Co-Players of the Week for the first week of the season after tying for the league lead with seven RBIs. Bryant, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, continued his torrid pace in Week Two, highlighted by smashing two long home runs and driving in four runs in the Friday afternoon game against Surprise. Not to be outdone by his opponent, Haniger drove in three runs in the Saguaros' Saturday night contest against the Glendale Desert Dogs. The two players again finished the week tied for the RBI lead with 12. Bryant leads the league with four home runs.
• The AFL may have lost two of its top prospects this week to injury. Jameson Taillon (Pirates) was pulled from the Scottsdale roster after suffering a minor groin injury in his first start on opening night. Byron Buxton (Twins) has been held out of the Glendale lineup since last appearing on Wednesday due to a left shoulder strain; his status for the remainder of the fall season has not yet been announced.