CBS Sports’s Jon Heyman just confirmed that the Cubs signed Cuban youngster Jorge Soler to a nine-year, $30 million deal, their second Cuban signing of the year after Gerardo Concepcion, the 20-year-old former Cuban National Series rookie of the year. (Concepcion, who isn’t expected to be more than a back-of-the-rotation pitcher, is scuffling in Peoria.) It’s a long contract, but Soler is a mere 20 years old, and he’ll have a lot of adjustment to make—Cuban baseball is generally considered to be about as good as low Single-A ball.
Soler is the second big Cuban signing of 2012. Yoenis Cespedes was signed by the A’s for four years and $36 million in January, and went straight to the majors, where he’s hitting a respectable .275/.338/.489 with six home runs and 26 RBI—about Alex Rios numbers, a good start for a 26-year-old going from the shallow depths of the Cuban National Series to the deepest baseball league in the world. They’re actually comparable contracts: the Cubs get Soler for much less per year, but he’ll certainly stay in the minors. Cespedes was more expensive, but he was expected to contribute to the major-league team almost immediately.
Soler… is not. He’s a few years younger, and even by the standards of Cuban baseball, he has virtually no experience. The only extant video I can find of Soler comes from his appearance at the World Junior Baseball Championship, an under-18 tournament in which his team finished third. He showed contact and patience (.300 average, .500 OBP) and a little pop (.522 slugging), though over a mere eight games.
Other than that, he appears to have gone two for 11 in a very brief stint for La Habana in the Cuban National Series. Compare that to Cespedes, who was one of the better hitters in the CNS for eight years; in his last season there, he set a CNS record with 33 home runs (the CNS has a 90-game season). Clay Davenport, who follows Cuban baseball closely, compared Cespedes to Adam Jones, the Orioles’ talented if underproducing center fielder who’s finally living up to expectations in 2012.
So the Cubs signed him on scouting and upside—the chance to take a player with similar skills to Cespedes, but bring him up in a major-league organization. And there may be a lot of potential. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus hypothetically ranked Soler as the 39th best prospect in baseball, just behind Cespedes and five slots ahead of Brett Jackson, the Cubs’ rough American outfield prospect. Had he been a draft pick last year, Keith Law estimates he would have been a top-5 or top-10 pick as a big outfielder (6’3", 200 lbs, and growing) with a good power-speed balance, though his “hit tool is still a bit of an unknown.”
Why pay so much for a 20-year-old with nonexistent stats? In less than a month, big-budget teams won’t have the massive spending advantage the Cubs have when it comes to international players:
In some ways, teams have to either buy the young Cuban defectors now while the market can be exploited, or wait until the following offseason and compete on the same level as the rest of the budget-strapped teams in the league. Beginning July 2, 2012, every team in the league will receive $2.9M for international signings; the Cubs just spent more than two times their upcoming international budget on the third-best Cuban defector on the market [Concepcion].
The Cubs are going through a rebuilding period, 2012 had few free agents appealing to their needs, and the international market is about to completely change—they couldn’t take it with them, and if Soler pans out, he’ll be locked in at a decent price. Just don’t expect him anytime soon.
Here’s that video of Soler; he comes in for an at-bat at 0:50. He’s big, but don’t blink.