Theo Epstein won a World Series in his second season in Boston. It will take a little longer this time around. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Don’t look now, but the Cubs' 2016 lineup could be pretty darn good. Their outlook for what currently stands as the final year of team president Theo Epstein’s contract and shortstop Starlin Castro’s walk year got even sunnier on Monday when it was reported that the club signed 20-year-old Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler to a nine-year contract worth around $30 million.
Unlike his countryman Yoenis Cespedes, the A's rookie who is six years older, Soler won’t be headed straight to the major leagues, but he projects as a rightfielder with big-time power, speed and a strong throwing arm. Soler could be part of an impressive offensive core for the Cubs alongside Castro, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and centerfielder Brett Jackson, both of whom are expected to join the Cubs sometime this season, 19-year-old infielder Javier Baez, the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft, and outfielder Albert Almora, the Cubs top pick (No. 6 overall) from this year’s draft.
Soler's nine-year contract gives the Cubs, effectively, three years to develop him followed by a full six years of team control, and if he breaks into the majors sooner, the Cubs would get more than the typical six seasons before a player is eligible for free agency. The length of the contract also guarantees the Cubs will get Soler's prime, late-20s seasons. He will reportedly be able to opt out of his current salary structure and take the Cubs to salary arbitration once he amasses the usual amount of major league service time (roughly three years), so the Cubs aren't guaranteed to get those seasons for the contract's annual average value of $3.3 million, but he will remain Cubs property for the next nine years even if he does opt for arbitration. So while the Cubs may wind up spending more than $30 million on Soler, if that happens it will be because he has fulfilled his potential as a major league star.
For now, though, stardom is a long way off. Soler is still raw and hasn’t played at all this year as he’s been busy establishing his residency and clearing the necessary hurdles to be declared a free agent by major league baseball, something which finally happened on June 2. He’ll likely head first to extended spring training, then join one of the Cubs’ A-ball teams, after which the pace of his promotions will be determined by what the organization sees on the field. Don’t look for Soler in the major leagues this year, and don’t be surprised if he doesn’t make his major league debut next year either. That nine-year commitment gives the Cubs and Soler all the time they need to make sure he is developed properly and arrives ready. Besides, the fact that Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer haven’t called up Rizzo or Jackson yet despite the Cubs' unsightly 20-40 record -- just a half-game away from the worst in baseball -- speaks to the patience they plan to show with their new club’s rebuilding.
-- By Cliff Corcoran