The Phillies Are In the Running for Jorge Soler

In the past few days, the Phillies’ position with regards to Cuban prospect Jorge Soler has gone from silence to “interested” to, as Jeff Passan put it, “in hardest,” along with the New York Yankees. Soler’s case is somewhat unique, as he will be one of the last international signings to occur before the new collective bargaining agreement’s restrictions on international spending go into effect this summer. The (frankly, rather absurd) new rules will impose harsh, progressive taxes on international contracts that exceed a set limit, so a lot of teams faced with one last opportunity to make their money truly work for them in the global baseball market may seek his services.

The Cubs were apparently close enough to signing him on Monday night that some outlets reported the deal as done, but with last year’s highest and second-highest payrolls now in the bidding, many teams may be priced out. The supposed Cubs deal that has since been refuted was for around $30 million dollars; he may end up making substantially more than that, even more than the 4 year, $36 million deal handed out to fellow Cuban Yoenis Cespedes, but without the latter’s ability to become a free agent when the deal expires.

Soler cuts an even lower profile than Cespedes, who came with many questions and only a 20 minute long self-aggrandizing YouTube video to answer them. In Jorge’s case, we have no video, and, by way of illustration, the above picture that looks like a found photo from the 1960s is the only one I could find [ed. note: appropriately, this wasn’t even a picture of Soler, so I removed it]. Still, he’s been generating some amount of discussion in scouting circles for the last two years, and now that MLB teams are meeting with him, a reasonable snapshot can be assembled. The basics: he is a 6′ 5″ right-handed hitter that weighs in at around 200 pounds. Most of the available reports on his abilities are in decent alignment, and Soler’s raw power is the first thing that gets mentioned. One report noted that he could be a 30 home run hitter at the big league level, while Ken Rosenthal reported that some scouts compared his power to that of Marlins slugger Mike Stanton. While he was in the minors, Stanton’s power had a sort of folk legend status, and the young right-fielder has slugged .525 in his first 1,000 or so major league plate appearances, so it’s hard to overstate what high praise that is.

Of course, power isn’t very useful if a hitter’s contact and patience skills aren’t playable. It seems generally agreed-upon that Soler is still raw in those areas, and will need a lot of seasoning in the minor leagues to bring them up to speed. Since he’s only 19 years old, this makes him not much different from most high-ceiling hitting prospects that come from both the United States and elsewhere abroad, and similar to the sort of hitters that the Phillies have drafted over the years — Larry Greene being the most recent to come to mind. More than one source makes reference to Soler’s five-tool potential, though certain of these receive more press than others. Besides his power, his arm is apparently a standout asset, which, combined with evaluations of his fielding, causes many to suspect that he’ll move from center field to right field when he finds a landing spot in the United States. He possesses formidable speed, having been clocked by one scout at 4.26 seconds from home plate to first base, which is above average for a right-hander. Scouts seem to doubt that this will be enough to make him a significant base-stealing threat in the MLB, however.

Slotting Soler along with more well-understood prospects requires some guesswork. Kevin Goldstein was asked (many times) where Soler would rank among his top 100 prospects list, released this week, were he to include foreign talent. He placed Soler at 39, ahead of Padres catching prospect Yasmani Grandal and 13 spots ahead of the highest Phillie on his list, Trevor May. I asked Keith Law the same question in a recent chat, but he did not answer it. He did say that, were the Cubs to sign him, he would place Soler “ahead of [Brett] Jackson” at 89 but not ahead of Anthony Rizzo at 36, which leaves plenty to the imagination. Notably, though, Law also said that he would rather “roll the dice on Soler” than Cespedes, given the former’s age and what he’s heard from his sources. Regardless, there is plenty of the uncertainty that comes with any international prospect. Law has said several times that the level of competition in Cuban baseball is lower than that of single-A, but with a wider divide between the best and worst players, and Soler is certainly at or near the top of competition in that environment. As a 19 year old, rookie or single-A baseball is the most suitable home for him anyway at this point, but Soler will have to cope with not only a whole new field of competitive talent, but also the psychological burdens of a teenager moving to an entirely new country and making the necessary adaptations.

For the Phillies, Soler is a risk worth taking, both because of their financial situation and because Soler represents an immediate step towards relieving one of their more pressing problems — the farm system. With Domonic Brown having graduated from prospect status (albeit, in this metaphor, still living with his negligent parents) and the toll taken by last season’s trade for Hunter Pence, Keith Law understandably ranked Philadelphia’s organization in the bottom five in the MLB. As mentioned, Kevin Goldstein, for one, would rank Soler ahead of the Phillies’ highest-rated prospect, Trevor May. He also, incidentally, places Soler ten spots ahead of Jarred Cosart, the highest-rated of the Pence bounty. The Phillies will be patient with talents like May, Larry Greene, Jesse Biddle, and Sebastian Valle, but with some rule 4 draft changes looming that will restrict their ability to throw money around with U.S. amateurs, Soler represents a quick, easy boost to the farm system that could pay serious dividends in four or five years. Like the rest of the talent in the Phillies’ system, Soler is raw, but if the Mike Stanton comparisons are even remotely plausible, Citizens Bank Park would be a very cozy home for him.

This Phillies offseason has been understandably fairly quiet, outside of the early acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon. There was no real need for big ticket signings, given the roster’s composition. But, in addition to being a sound baseball move, signing Jorge Soler would carry a certain excitement with it, owing particularly to the Phillies’ historical reluctance to dabble in big money international signings. Several years down the road, when the roster will be thick with age and expense, the potential for a comparatively cheap young talent with team control is well worth a significant up-front investment, and the assumption of the risk that goes with it. Jim Salisbury reports that the Phillies are a “serious player” for Soler, having “remained in close contact with Soler and his agents since [he] defected.” Once the formalities associated with him attaining official free agent status are overcome, it may be only a short period of time before we know where he will land.

Talking Phillies on ESPN’s Baseball Today Podcast

I spoke with ESPN’s Eric Karabell (@karabellespn) — also the author of a Philadelphia-themed book involving a list of 100 — yesterday about the Phillies and “100 Things Phillies Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die“. You can click here to listen to it, or find it on iTunes.

Note: On Baseball Today, I said that Michael Martinez was in the infield when Roy Halladay threw his perfect game in 2010. I meant Juan Castro!

I will be on WRTI-FM today as well, though I am not aware of when my spot will air. This post will be updated when I find out.

Update: Here’s what WRTI-FM plans to do with the interview we taped today:

The plan right now is to do a feature on it.  We call it News and Views.  It will probably air closer to the start of baseball season […] last week of March or first week of April.  It’s essentially three two minute pieces that air throughout the day on our station and the whole thing will be on our website.