A duffel bag slung around his shoulders, Jorge Soler sauntered through a hallway and turned right into the visitors’ clubhouse here on Wednesday, the sight eliciting a round of impromptu shouting and smiles from a group of Royals sitting at a table. Salvador Perez stuck out his hand and offered a greeting. Lorenzo Cain yelled above the din.
Twenty-five days after being sent back to Class AAA Omaha, Soler was back in a major-league clubhouse here at Comerica Park. An added bonus: The Royals may have an answer for their year-long woes at the designated hitter spot.
The arrival of Soler came Wednesday as the club placed infielder Cheslor Cuthbert on the 10-day disabled list with a left wrist sprain. No baseball team desires injuries, yet the timing of the nagging ailment could prove beneficial.
As Soler returned, designated hitter Brandon Moss remained ensnared in a season-long slump, his average falling to .179 on Tuesday after an 0-for-4 performance. The Royals have maintained optimism that the veteran slugger will emerge from his rut. Yet Soler surfaced as a possible alternative after a strong month for Omaha.
“More than anything, Brandon, I know, is probably very frustrated,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said on Wednesday. “But at the same time, he’s capable of getting hot. He’s a veteran major-league hitter. He’s capable of getting hot and carrying us, too.”
The question of what the club can do with Moss is complicated by more than production. The Royals signed Moss to a two-year, $12 million deal in late January, hoping to fortify their lineup with a veteran who possesses track record of power. They owe him a guaranteed $7.25 million in 2018, in addition to a $1 million buyout on a mutual option in 2019.
For now, Moss remains mired in one of the worst starts of his career. He has posted a .626 OPS (on-base plus slugging) in 51 games. He is striking out in 33.9 percent of plate appearances, which ranks 11th in the league among players with at least 180 plate appearances. His veteran status means he cannot be optioned back to the minors. So he has spent much of the season looking for answers.
“When you go through something like this,” Moss said, “you feel like you have to be perfect just to get a hit. And you start pressing a little bit and guessing a little bit, and it just doesn’t go well. Obviously, good results would usually breed confidence.”
The Royals can point to Moss’s track record as a reason for patience. For years, he has excelled in the big leagues despite a hot-and-cold nature. In 2016, he clubbed 28 homers for the Cardinals and was a run producer during the season’s first half, posting a .910 OPS before the All-Star break. The numbers, however, began to decline last September. Dating back to last Sept. 2, he is batting just .150 with 12 homers and 94 strikeouts across 77 games.
For now, the club could pivot to the right-handed hitting Soler, who started at designated hitter against left-hander Daniel Norris in the Royals’ 8-2 win Wednesday and went 1 for 5 with an RBI and two strikeouts.
Acquired in a December trade that sent Wade Davis to the Chicago Cubs, Soler sustained an oblique strain at the end of spring training and missed all of April. When he did debut in early May, his timing appeared off. He hit just .164 in 55 at-bats in May. When rookie Jorge Bonifacio grabbed hold of the starting spot in right field, the Royals opted to send Soler back to Omaha to get consistent at-bats.
The club viewed the move as temporary. Soler is under team control through the 2020 and could become a mainstay in the lineup across the next three seasons. But first, he had to smooth out some rough edges.
The early returns were somewhat promising. After returning to Omaha on June 5, Soler hit eight homers in 20 games. In 31 total games at Class AAA, he is batting .324 with a .453 on-base percentage and 11 homers.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Moore said, “in the sense that Bonifacio got an opportunity to play and did really well, and we know that Jorge Soler at 25 years old has better days ahead of him.”
At the moment, Cuthbert is expected to miss five days of baseball activities as he rests his injured wrist. At some point after that, he could embark on a minor-league rehab stint to gain more at-bats. With Cuthbert out of minor-league options, the injury could allow him to play consistently at Omaha for a few weeks, delaying a later roster decision. For now, that means Soler and Moss could share DH duties here in the majors.
On Wednesday, Soler arrived back inside the Royals’ clubhouse. His presence could address a glaring hole. At the least, he’s ready for his second chance in the Royals’ lineup after altering his approach.
“He was a little indecisive here (in May),” said Royals coach Pedro Grifol, who translated for Soler during a pregame interview. “Sometimes he would take good pitches, and then he would expand the zone here. When he went down there, he just focused on swinging at good pitches and he was able to do that.”