CHICAGO – Less than two years into his American professional baseball career, Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler has an image problem.
Before Soler, the starting right-fielder for Advanced-A Daytona, took the field Wednesday against the Clearwater Threshers, the 21-year-old stood out for his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame and ability to crush a baseball. But a quick, emotional decision to grab a bat and head toward the Threshers’ dugout after an on-field argument now evokes images of former Cubs head cases Carlos Zambrano and Milton Bradley.
Soler received a five-game suspension from the Florida State League as well as an undisclosed fine for his actions after the seventh inning of Wednesday’s game. The altercation began when Clearwater second baseman Carlos Alonso fell on Soler, who slid into the base, prompting an argument that had been building all game.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Soler spoke with Cubs front office personnel Thursday morning and explained he had been jawing back and forth with Alonso throughout the game. However, once Alonso said something about his Soler’s family he finally lost his cool.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that he left Daytona and was headed to either Chicago or the Cubs’ Arizona home to meet with team officials.
“He’s very well mannered, very respectful, very friendly,” Epstein said. “Keeps to himself for the most part, quick smile and good temperament. So this is just something that now that it’s happened we need to get ahead of it.”
Soler’s explanation doesn’t excuse his actions, and the Cubs didn’t defend what he did. He made a conscious, and admittedly wrong, decision to get a bat from the dugout and approach the other team. If not for teammate Frank Del Valle sprinting to hold him back, Soler could be in much more trouble. That’s the most concerning part of the incident – he re-engaged after the argument at second had been diffused. Epstein believes, while disappointing, the altercation shouldn’t define Soler.
“This is a great kid that’s already overcome a lot in his life and someone that we’re not worried about at all for the long haul,” Epstein said. “But it’s clear he’s been thrust into a high profile situation very suddenly and it’s our job as an organization to make sure he has the tools to make good decisions even in the heat of the moment.”
The Cubs’ background checks and investigation into Soler’s history before signing him in June 2012 never revealed an issue, according to Epstein. Alfonso Soriano mentored Soler during spring training and the Cubs’ outfielder suggested the cultural change and pressure of living up to his nine-year, $30 million contract, which included a $6 million signing bonus, could explain the outburst.
“There’s so many negative things that happen throughout anyone’s career and throughout a season so it is part of the maturity process to handle all that,” manager Dale Sveum said.
Pitcher Jeff Samardzija wasn’t shocked Soler lost control of his emotions given the circumstances. Samardzija was a year older than Soler when he spent most of 2007 in Daytona. Like Soler, Samardzija was making good money while in the minors – he signed a five-year, $10 million contract with a $2 million signing bonus in 2007 – and it didn’t go unnoticed by opposing players, who were eager to prove Samardzija belonged on the football field, not the baseball diamond.
“There’s definitely a chip on your shoulder for other guys trying to prove themselves,” Samardzija said. “You need to understand that you’re going to get everybody’s best and you’re also going to get everybody’s worst and you need to learn how to deal with both.”
Cubs players, including first baseman Anthony Rizzo, agreed that everyone makes a mistake at some point and bouncing back from it is extremely important. Missteps in the spotlight didn’t hold back Washington Nationals standout Bryce Harper despite some cringe-worthy moments. His most notable came during his first pro season in 2011 when he blew a kiss to the opposing pitcher after he hit a home run.
However, that display, while disrespectful, didn’t involve a physical threat. The Cubs must get through to Soler that his actions will not be tolerated. They can’t afford to have Soler become the next Zambrano, who was known to brandish a bat a time or two during his time wearing Cubbie blue.
“We believe in Jorge as a person as well as a player,” Epstein said. “It’s our responsibility to work with him and make sure he has a better way to channel his emotions on the field and make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. That’s our responsibility and that’s his responsibility to fully embrace that.”
• Meghan Montemurro covers the White Sox and Cubs for Shaw Media. Write to her at email@example.com. Read the Payoff Pitch blog at NWHerald.com and on Twitter@Sox_Insider and @InsideTheCubs.