The Royals introduced their new right fielder on Tuesday, and for close to two minutes, the visual optics of the event were more or less customary.
Jorge Soler, the 24-year-old outfielder by way of the Chicago Cubs, wore a pink button-down shirt and strolled into a press conference room on the bottom floor of Kauffman Stadium. At just past 4:30 p.m., he sat on a dais, his name placard in front of him, flanked by general manager Dayton Moore and interpreter Luis Perez. Soler smiled as a photographer clicked off a few rounds, and Moore began the introduction.
It was only when Soler stood up, pulling on a blue Royals hat and buttoning his new No. 12 jersey, that this ordinary photo-op felt different. As Soler stood on a raised platform, his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame towered over Moore. For a moment, it looked like a hulking middle linebacker standing next to a kicker, like a Bo Jackson body double had sneaked back inside Kauffman Stadium.
“He’s got presence,” Moore would say later.
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The Royals, of course, did not send All-Star closer Wade Davis to Chicago to simply acquire a player who can fill out a uniform. But Soler’s first steps inside Kauffman Stadium offered a primer for the future, a glimpse at why the Royals are betting on his talent.
Moore and his lieutenants believe they have acquired an emerging power hitter who can slot into the middle of the Royals’ lineup for the next four seasons. Soler believes he’s finally found a place where he can display his immense gifts after three uneven seasons in Chicago, years defined by injuries and modest output at the plate.
“He thinks he still has a lot of room to improve,” said Perez, an assistant strength coach who served as Soler’s interpreter during a 10-minute press conference. “And his main goal is just to play every day and be ready.”
In some ways, Tuesday’s press conference was light on substance and heavy on introductions. Moore reiterated that Soler will start in right field and could serve as the designated hitter on occasion, though the club would like to keep the DH position open to allow for a rotation in the role. Soler said he was still learning about his new surroundings after five years in the Cubs organization, though he did know one thing about the spacious confines of his new ballpark.
“It’s a little bit bigger than Wrigley,” he said. “But that’s OK.”
On Tuesday, the trade that sent Davis to the Cubs was just six days old. But Moore was already likening it to another deal that shaped the Royals’ rise from perennial bottom feeder to World Series champion in 2015. Six years ago, Moore reminded, the club sent ace Zack Greinke to the Milwaukee Brewers in a December trade that netted Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress.
In some ways, of course, the deals are dissimilar. Greinke still had two years remaining on his contract and commanded a heavier package of prospects. But Moore sought to draw a simple parallel between what Escobar and Cain were then and what Soler is now.
“This deal is really in the vein of when we traded Zack Greinke to get Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain,” Moore said. “It was two players at the time that we felt had upside; we knew they would be quality defenders. And you didn’t know how much they were going to hit, because they simply hadn’t done it yet at the major-league level.”
In time, Escobar and Cain grew into All-Star position players, key cogs of a team that won two straight American League pennants. In time, the Royals hope Soler follows a similar trajectory.
“Jorge is actually more advanced than those two players were at the same stage in their career,” Moore said.
The question marks that followed Cain and Escobar are different, however, than the ones that hover above Soler, a Cuban defector who will turn 25 in February. Six years ago, the Royals believed that Cain and Escobar were elite defenders who could become more polished hitters at the plate. For now, Soler appears more advanced at the plate — in relation to Cain and Escobar then — while his defense remains a concern. Moore has called Soler’s defense “average” with an opportunity to improve. The advanced metrics appear to corroborate that evaluation.
“We feel very comfortable,” Moore said. “He’s energetic. He loves to play. He’s happy. He fits in well. He’s well liked. There’s a lot of upside.”
Start here: In three seasons in Chicago, Soler batted .258 with a .328 on-base percentage and 27 homers in 765 plate appearances. On paper, the numbers do not pop. Yet the Royals see reasons for optimism.
The club’s analytics department liked Soler’s ability to get on base — his walk rate (11.7 percent) would have led the Royals in 2016. The club’s talent evaluators loved his raw power and an assortment of tools that once landed him among the top 20 prospects in baseball before the 2015 season.
“We knew that this deal was a potential fit for us a couple of months ago,” Moore said. “So it gave us plenty of time to do all the background (checks).”
Even if Soler experiences more growing pains at the plate in 2017, club officials believe the statistical case for the trade may still hold up. In 2016, Soler batted just .238 with a .333 on-base percentage while blasting 12 homers in 86 games for the Cubs. Yet according to advanced metrics, his OPS-plus was 105 — or five percent better than league average. At the same time, Royals designated hitter Kendrys Morales posted an OPS-plus of 108 while hitting 30 homers in 154 games.
At his worst, the Royals believe Soler’s floor can approximate Morales’ production, while his potential ceiling could be a power-hitting corner outfielder who can club more than 30 homers and anchor the middle of a lineup for multiple seasons.
The answers, of course, will come later. For now, only one thing is certain: Soler is a Royal now, ready to join the remnants of the organization’s championship core. Two months ago, he helped the Cubs hoist a World Series championship trophy after Game 7 in Cleveland. Now he has another goal: Help the Royals get back there.
“It was very difficult (leaving the Cubs),” Perez said, translating for Soler. “He was there with them for five years and that’s the only team he has known. But he’s willing to dive in and (he’s) excited to be here.”