After two months out of big league action with a strained hamstring, Jorge Soler came back on Friday with a bang – a rocket homer in his first at bat. He would go on to add another homer, a double, and, pfft, a single, over the course of the weekend series in Oakland.
Fun fact: with his power-filled weekend return to the big leagues, Soler raised his slugging percentage by a whopping 46 points, and brought his wRC+ up from 90 to an even 100. He’s now a league average bat!
Of course, we actually know that Soler can be good bit better than that when he’s at his best, but the ever-present questions remain: can he consistently show that huge in-game power and quality discipline, and can he stay healthy? It’ll be interesting to see to what extent those questions are answered over the course of the rest of this season.
As long as he keeps answering those questions with yeses on the field when given an opportunity, he’ll have a spot on the big league roster and somewhat regularly in the lineup.
I say “somewhat regularly” because there are other questions that Soler can’t answer on his own. When it comes to playing time, it’s not going to be as simple as just starting Soler every game at this point. When Soler starts in left field – and with Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward the regulars in the other outfield spots – Javy Baez cannot start unless one of the infield regulars is sitting. And Willson Contreras cannot start unless he’s behind the plate. And Chris Coghlan and Matt Szczur cannot start at all.
None of those things is necessarily a problem, but coordinating them all to maximize lineups and freshness and getting reps and on and on will take work. There will be days off for the regulars, and because there is so much versatility on the roster, it shouldn’t be too difficult to open up semi-regular starts in left (and maybe sometimes right) field for Soler. At a minimum, he figures to start against the vast majority of lefties. Against righties, he might be given a pretty regular shot to establish himself here in August, mostly at the expense of Coghlan starts and Contreras starts in the outfield.
The roster, though, remains a sticky wicket. Setting aside Tommy La Stella’s absence, there is the impending return of Jason Hammel, who’ll be back on the 25-man roster on Wednesday to start against the Angels.
Presently, the Cubs are operating with 8 relievers, 4 starting pitchers, and 13 position players. Unless there’s an injury before Wednesday, the Cubs will have to send out someone on the roster to make room for Hammel, and with Joe Nathan already DFA’d to make room for Soler, there are no obvious answers.
It’s possible the Cubs will be willing to go down to seven relievers, given how great the starting pitching has been and how solid the bullpen has been. There are guys who are seeing very little work. Then again, the only pitchers with options left are Aroldis Chapman (not being optioned), Carl Edwards Jr. (so hard to option at this point, even if only to preserve the arm for the stretch), and Justin Grimm (who has been fantastic lately, but may once again have to be the odd man out, at least until another spot opens up or September rolls around).
It’s also possible the Cubs will send out a position player for Hammel … but who? Coghlan and Szczur cannot be optioned, though they could plausibly be traded if it came to that. Soler could be optioned, but, well, he’s the entire predicate for this discussion. Seems like you’d want to keep him going. Contreras is becoming an even more important piece day by day, and I also doubt the Cubs want to go down to two catchers at this point. So … yeah. If the Cubs want to maximize the preservation of assets for September, they’ll option someone to the minors and take the short-term pain. If the Cubs want to have the best 25-man roster for August, they may have to take some long-term pain by losing an asset.
We’ll see what happens this week. As always, it’s possible things resolve themselves organically with another injury somewhere on the roster. You certainly don’t root for that, but it happens.