Off the bat, Rusty Kuntz knew the ball would be trouble.
During the sixth inning of a spring training game at Surprise Stadium, Oakland’s Matt Olson smashed a line drive toward Royals right fielder Jorge Soler. The ball was moving erratically, but Soler managed to stab it out of the warm night air.
The next morning, a group of Royals players surrounded Kuntz on a field where the team stretches, and he was listing the good and bad from the previous night. Soler had the catch of the game.
“How’d that ball find your glove?” Kuntz crowed as Soler’s teammates applauded.
A few days later, Kuntz called it one of the best catches he’d seen in the last five years at spring training.
“That ball was a rocket and it can be moving any direction,” Kuntz said. “In fact, he probably hit a knuckleball out there, and those are by far the worst, because they’ll start off on one shoulder and they’ll end up waist-high on the other. That’s one of those where you’re either going to catch it or it’s going to catch you.”
It was just the kind of encouraging play the Royals hope to see for years to come from Soler.
After trading All-Star closer Wade Davis to the Chicago Cubs for Soler in December, Royals general manager Dayton Moore said a key to the deal was getting a player who could be a cornerstone for the team for the rest of the decade.
At 6-feet-4, 215 pounds, Soler passes the eye test for a power-hitting corner outfielder. He was a star at the 2010 World Junior Championships before defecting from Cuba in 2011 and signing with the Cubs the following year.
Baseball America’s No. 12 overall prospect ahead of the 2015 season, Soler hit .295 with a .519 slugging percentage in 166 career minor-league games. In that span, he clubbed 28 home runs with 43 doubles.
In his first at-bat in the majors, Soler hit a home run.
“We obviously love his upside, love his power,” Moore said after the trade was completed. “(We) like the fact that we have some control over the next four years.”
Soler, who is 25 and won’t be a free agent until after the 2020 season, is far from a polished player, particularly in the field.
Since coming into the league, Soler has minus-13.7 runs saved in right field over 1,071 2/3 innings, according to FanGraphs. His Ultimate Zone Rating in that time is negative-11.3. After the trade, an ESPN reporter said Soler wasn’t showing many signs of improvement on defense.
But Kuntz believes Soler has defensive upside.
“They’re just basing it on the analytics part of it,” Kuntz said. “How much range he covers, how much ground. That’s all good and well. I’m just getting paid to make him a better outfielder and try to improve his routes to the ball, which is going to increase his range. After the season is over with, we can compare where he is to where he was and whether I’ve got a lot more work to do.
“He’s already shown that he’s got a whole lot more range in that body as far as going after balls. Knock on wood, that’s what I’m hoping for — that it keeps increasing and he just keeps getting better and better.”
And Soler seems be eager to learn.
“Everyday so far in spring training, he comes with a big smile, ‘What do you want me to do?’ ” Kuntz said.
“To this point, everything I’ve asked him do, he’s just been like a sponge. All the information, all the drills, all the stuff that we do during a game. … The things that he’s going through are exactly what all the other guys are going through, too, as far as the positioning, the read, route and range that you get acclimated with.”
One thing Kuntz can’t help with is avoiding injuries. Soler missed almost two months of the 2016 season because of a strained left hamstring, and in 2015 was on the disabled list twice (sprained left ankle and strained left oblique).
Those injuries are why Soler said his time with the Cubs “was OK. It was not great.” He’s never played more than 101 games in a big-league season and is slated to start 2017 on the disabled list because of a strained oblique muscle.
“It’s very important for him to prove to everyone that he can play every day,” said Royals catching coach Pedro Grifol, translating for Soler.
Once he returns to the field, the Royals are eager to see what Soler can do.
Soler is working with one of the best outfield coaches in baseball, and his bat could become a force.
In 682 career at-bats in the majors, Soler has 27 home runs, 35 doubles and 98 RBIs. That kind of production would be a welcome addition to the Royals’ lineup.
“His major-league numbers were very, very good,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “I mean you bunch his major-league numbers together and … that’s a hell of a year. So, it’s all in there.”