You probably think by now that I’m trying to push the big Cuban out the door. I can’t really blame you for that either, as I’ve brought up the topic of a Jorge Soler trade more than once here. Shipping the brauny right fielder off seemed like an inevitability for a while there, but Theo Epstein’s most recent comments seem to indicate otherwise.
Jon Heyman wrote the other day that the Cubs are “still taking offers” on Soler, and that the Cleveland Indians set up as a nice trade partner. I’d probably file this under “Move along, nothing to see here” but for the fact that this same rumor has persisted for over a month and a half now.
Oh, there’s also the matter of this Jason Heyward guy the Cubs just signed to a big contract. Heyward is a right fielder. Soler is a right fielder. And while the former can certainly play center, that’s the kind of thing we might be inclined to call sub-optimal. Then again, I do believe putting Heyward in center would provide as least as much value as having Dexter Fowler out there last season.
Heading into 2015, Fowler was not viewed as much of a defensive wizard, but he acquitted himself pretty well over the course of a campaign that should net him a pretty fair contract yet this offseason. But in Heyward, the Cubs have a guy who’s widely viewed as the best defensive right fielder in baseball. Could they be assuming that he can handle a move to the middle well enough that his value to them will actually increase?
August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs seems to think that could be the case:
Heyward has consistently graded out as something like a +2o run defender in right field, and the difference in the positional adjustment between right field and center field is 10 runs. Even if Heyward were to struggle in his transition, the elite level he’s established in right field would seem to indicate that he’s more than capable of making the transition while still providing plus defense in center.
Were Heyward able to maintain a +10 run per year pace in center field, accruing similar defense value as to what he’s previously established, people would no longer question the bat. Heyward’s ~120 wRC+ is just fine in right field as it is, but in center, it would be elite. Heyward is a significantly better offensive player at this stage in his career than someone like Adam Jones, and Jones’ bat seems to generally be viewed as a plus, for a center fielder. In center field, the only guys with a clear advantage over Heyward, offensively, would be Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen. It’s easier to find someone who can handle right field than it is center field, and so, in a vacuum, Heyward as a center fielder would give his team value in the way of flexibility [all emphasis mine].
Okay, so that’s pretty cool. Still, the notion of playing Heyward out of position has always struck me as kind of a necessary evil for the Cubs. Then again, I think the same thing holds true for a Soler trade. It’s as if there’s no perfect solution. Huh. Much like signing Ben Zobrist made Starlin Castro expendable, I felt as though Heyward’s presence sort of diminished Soler’s value to the Cubs and meant that a corresponding move was in the offing. But the more time passes, the more I’m inclined to believe Soler stays.
Let me put it another way. If you’ve ever bought or sold on eBay or have been to an auction, you know there’s something called a reserve price, a mandatory level to which bidding must go before the seller will actually part with the item. So the Cubs may indeed be continuing to listen to offers, but they’re not going to move their cost-controlled Cuban clubber unless and until another team offers up a similarly low-priced and similarly high-ceilinged starting pitcher.
“Barring anything (that we just can’t turn down),” Epstein told Bruce Levine, “[Soler] knows to ignore all the trade rumors and take it as a compliment.”
At the end of the day, the Cubs are actually in a perfect position here because they don’t have to do anything. Should their reserve price not be met, they move forward with Heyward in center and Soler in right. If they get Cleveland to offer Danny Salazar or Carlos Carrasco, they have an incredibly formidable rotation and can maybe afford to put a glove-only guy in center while Heyward shifts to right.
But if Theo Epstein is to be taken at his word — and why shouldn’t he be? — it sure sounds as though the Cubs are not just okay with Soler as their right fielder. It sounds as if they’re pretty excited about what he’ll become.
“The reason (evaluating Soler is tough) is that he doesn’t have the long track record and he has had a few injuries that have cost him some time,” Epstein explained. “He and Schwarber were the two most locked-in guys we had. I love this guy’s future. I think his bat could be as good as anyone in the game from a power standpoint, as soon as he learns to loft the ball a little more.”
The offense has not really been as much a fear for some as the glove though, particularly when it comes to reading the ball of the bat and making the right jumps.
“As for Jorge’s defense,” the Cubs head baseball exec continued, “we have challenged him to get a little bit leaner and better. We want him to work on his jumps in right field and that is what he is working on now. I just watched some videos of him training and he looks great. He is down to 225 and is working hard on his quickness and flexibility. He looks fantastic.”
Listen, I’ve been as willing as anyone else to move Soler for the right package, but when I hear Theo Epstein say things like, “I think an outfield of Schwarber, Heyward and Soler can be one of the best in baseball,” I’m willing and able to change my tune.
There are still a few question marks in there, mind you, but it’s hard not to salivate when thinking about just how good that unit could be. If, as we read earlier, Heyward can indeed be an above-average center fielder and if Soler can improve and if Schwarber can just not be a chemical spill in left…whoo, boy. Again, I’m skeptical of the Soler’s ability to stay healthy and to reach that high ceiling still looming well above his head.
But Theo Epstein says the Cubs are “putting stock in [Soler’s] future,” and I’m inclined to believe it. Actually, when it comes to personnel choices, I treat Epstein’s assessments like investment advice from Warren Buffett. I guess that means I’m buying what Theo is selling. Though I suppose that’s a bit of a misnomer, since it sounds like they’re not actually selling Jorge Soler. But I guess they are selling us on his viability, so I am, in fact, buying that. Yeah, that’s it.
So barring some kind of crazy offer that just knocks them off their feet, it sounds like the Cubs have pretty well crafted the core of their roster. If potential won games, I’d say that the 100-victory projections might be a little light. Now it’s up to Soler and his teammates to make sure all those superlatives actually translate to both the stat sheet and the win column.