Wednesday January 21st, 2015

To kick off our fantasy baseball preview, Michael Beller will profile certain players who may not fit as a breakout, sleeper or bust (all of which we'll discuss in our preview), but who will still make a major impact in fantasy baseball this season.

The Cubs’ farm system has long been the envy of the rest of the industry. It all started when the Cubs, still under the watch of Jim Hendry, selected Javier Baez with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft. Baez was considered the gem of the farm system until the team, now with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer at the helm, grabbed Kris Bryant out of the University of San Diego with the second overall selection 2013. Those pieces all look ready to contribute in 2015, which goes a long way toward explaining the optimism on the North Side of Chicago.

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Of course, a few of the prospects, Baez included, made their debuts in 2014. The most intense focus of the spotlight has been saved for Baez and Bryant, but that skips over the prospect who had the most success at the major league level last year, and could very well do the same this year. That’s because Jorge Soler is for real.

Soler spent time at four different levels in 2014, if you include a weeklong stint at rookie ball to rehab an injury. He only needed 22 games at Double-A Tennessee to earn a promotion, slashing .415/.494/.862 with six homers. The song was similar at Triple-A Iowa where he posted a .282/.378/.618 slash line, adjusted for competition, with eight homers in 127 plate appearances. That was enough to get him to the majors in late August, where he was arguably the best hitter on the team not named Anthony Rizzo. In 97 plate appearances, roughly one-sixth of a full season, he hit .292/.330/.573 and left the yard five times.

He also did this in his first career at-bat.

Two days later, he did this.

Baez and Bryant had more fanfare, and they both may have higher ceilings than Soler but no one is a stronger lock for a monster fantasy season this year than the soon-to-be 23-year-old outfielder.

In 621 career plate appearances in the minors, Soler compiled a .307/.383/.551 line with 28 homers, 43 doubles and 117 RBI. We’re dealing with a sample size so small when looking at his major league numbers, that it’s almost a misnomer to even call it a sample size. Still, it’s hard to not come away very impressed, especially considering he did everything in a month while he was 22 years old.

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​Soler’s five homers in the majors had an average true distance of 408.4 feet. Had he attained that distance with enough bombs to qualify, it would have ranked as the 10th-longest in the majors, 0.3 feet ahead of Edwin Encarnacion, a guy with a pretty good reputation for hitting some of the longest homers in the majors. The power is a constant and something you can bank on in 2015. With a regular spot in the Cubs’ lineup, it would be a shock to see him hit any less than 20-to-23 homers.

Strikeouts have been an issue, and that’s likely not going away. He struck out in nearly a quarter of his major league plate appearances last year, and more than one-fifth of them at Iowa. On the flip side, he was always a patient hitter ready to take a walk in the minors -- his walk rate at Tennessee last year was 15.2 percent. That came down a bit when he moved up to Iowa, but it was still a robust 13.4 percent. Admittedly, that could have something to do with minor league pitchers not being as willing to challenge him as their counterparts in the majors, and indeed, Soler’s walk rate in his cup of coffee last year was just 6.2 percent. Still, there’s reason to believe a discerning eye is part of his skill set.

Soler is a wildly exciting 23-year-old with a near-elite power-hitting tool who has already attained some success in the majors. He has a premium spot in an improving lineup, especially with the addition of on-base machine Dexter Fowler. Steamer has Soler hitting ..262/.322/.463 with 23 homers and 77 RBI in 130 games. Assuming he stays healthy, he should surpass all of those counting stats. If I can only own one Cubs youngster for just this year, I want it to be Soler.

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