Drizzle falls on a gray January morning as Royals outfielder Jorge Soler sets himself up during practice in an outdoor batting cage.
He uncorks his hips and slices his bat through the warm air. When Soler connects with a soft pitch, the baseball thwaps into the netting right above his coach’s L screen, then drops to the artificial turf. Dozens of balls have collected there throughout the hourlong hitting lesson.
“Bola,” his coach says in Spanish, telling Soler he shouldn’t be swinging at those pitches.
Soler launches the next pitch over the top of the screen and into the back of the cage.
“Eso es,” Mike Tosar says this time. “That’s it.”
This backyard in suburban Miami is where Soler has done some soul searching and reset his approach, both mentally and physically. Where he has retooled his swing, learned to stay back on his load leg and improved his timing.
This is not the Jorge Soler the Royals last saw in September. This is a version of Soler cultivated through a longer-than-normal offseason training schedule, one who put a halt to months worth of sulking so he could try to become the power bat the Royals thought they acquired from the Cubs in the December 2016 trade of closer Wade Davis.
This is the version of Soler who, 20 pounds lighter thanks to an improved diet, is finally ready for a second chance.
“I had an awful season,” said Soler, who’s listed by the Royals at 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds. “Things went fine in the minor leagues but not in the big leagues. Obviously there were things I was doing wrong. I needed to make adjustments. … I don’t know how it’ll translate to the field but in the cage there’s an incredible change. I’ve never felt this way.”
There was a moment last season Soler thought his major-league career might be over.
It wasn’t the first time he’d lacked determination.
Some eight years ago, Soler defected from his native Cuba after the manager of his Serie Nacional team chose to start a 10-year veteran at third base over Soler, who missed tryouts for the Cuban iteration of the major leagues because of mandatory military training required of all 18-year-olds.
Soler was committed to playing for his homeland in spite of the buzz he created that year among scouts and major-league executives. He’d already succeeded as a youth player at the international level, participating in the Pan American Championships in 2008 and slugging .522 to lead Cuba to a bronze medal in the World Junior Championships in 2010. Becoming a star on Cuba’s national team was Soler’s natural next step.
But with little experience outside third base, which he grew up playing, his on-field opportunities were limited.
“They put me in the outfield,” Soler said of his 2010 stint in the top Cuban league. “I played one game, hit well that day, and the next day I sat. … I got frustrated. I thought I was talented enough to play but I didn’t.”
Three weeks into the season, he’d had enough. Soler spoke with his family about leaving Cuba and his father began to make arrangements. Within seven months, he reached the Dominican Republic in 2011. He began working out and showcasing his talent, eventually moving into the outfield at the behest of scouts. On June 30, 2012, he joined the Cubs organization right at the international signing deadline.
“I didn’t see my future,” Soler said. “I was wasting my time. I decided to go somewhere I could have a better future.”
But when he came to the United States, he found himself on the sidelines every season. Hamstring issues plagued him. By the time the Cubs called him up for his debut in late 2014, he’d barely registered a season and a half of playing time in three years.
Regardless, he earned a roster spot the next spring and enjoyed success in the 2015 postseason when he hit .474. Soler struggled to get playing time in 2016 after the Cubs signed Jason Heyward, then missed more time because of another hamstring strain.
Soler was banished to the minor leagues again last year, about two months after he traveled to Chicago to pick up his 2016 World Series championship ring from the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Coming back from a demotion to Class AAA seemed hopeless.
“In that moment you don’t want to think about tomorrow,” he said. “You have that news in your head and can’t think of anything else.”
Soler had entered spring training in 2017 self-assured. The Royals had indicated that Soler would be their starting right fielder, something he hadn’t been regularly since getting 99 outfield starts for the Cubs in 2015, including six in the postseason.
But Soler was ineffective at the major-league level from the moment he started playing with the Royals in the Cactus League last spring. He batted .143 in 19 games, then a left oblique injury sidelined him for the first month of the regular season.
When he was finally well enough to play, his timing at the plate was so off he struck out 19 times and grounded into four double plays in 55 major-league at-bats during May. He pulled three doubles and cranked out a solo home run to center field in that span, even laced a few singles into left field. But he had become futile.
“When they made the decision to send me down, it was the worst thing that ever happened to me in this sport,” Soler said. “I knew I wasn’t doing well, but I didn’t really think that could happen.
“Everything came crashing down.”
Soler knew he needed to restart in Omaha. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling of failure that came with losing what should have been his first everyday job.
“‘It’s nothing,’” Soler recalled his mother saying when he expressed his discontent. “‘This happens to so many players. It’s not a big deal. You need to do your best and prove to them you’re not of that league.’ That’s what made me think a different way.”
In June, Soler batted .333 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.214. He hit eight home runs, logged 24 RBIs and knocked five doubles. He showed more plate discipline, striking out 23 times and drawing 18 walks over 20 games.
But when he was called up to the Royals at the end of the month, he played in 11 games over a span of about three weeks and hit .139 with 15 strikeouts.
Still in the thick of a playoff hunt in July, the Royals sent Soler back to Omaha. He finished the season with a .267/.388/.564 slash line. He struck out 82 times in 74 games, but hit 24 homers and nine doubles and drove in 59 runs. He also walked 50 times.
When Soler joined the group of September call-ups in the Royals’ clubhouse last season, he couldn’t help but feel useless again. Relegated to a reserve role, he only saw the field when games were out of reach. The Royals, mathematically alive in the wild-card race, trusted Soler so little he logged just six at-bats in six games.
“I didn’t want to be there, honestly,” Soler said. “I didn’t have any motivation.”
He wanted to start over.
The place to do it was a backyard in suburban Miami, where Tosar, an international scout for the Dodgers and a longtime friend of Royals catching coach Pedro Grifol, has privately worked with a slew of major-leaguers over the years. Last offseason, he helped Yonder Alonso, who’d never hit more than nine home runs in the major leagues, improve his approach. Alonso hit 28 home runs between stints with he Athletics and Mariners in 2017.
Soler took Grifol’s recommendation. Instead of waiting until the end of November to start his offseason regimen, he started lessons with Tosar a month sooner in October.
“The biggest thing for me is getting into their heads, changing their thought process,” Tosar said. “Once they do that, the way they go about their work is different. The way they see the game is different.”
Tosar encouraged Soler to depend on sight. It seemed like a simple message, but Soler had been told countless times already to stay back. He’d still load early and his swing would always be too long.
But the way Tosar described the concept — “Use your eyes to stay back, use your eyes to get behind the baseball” — was the clearest explanation Soler had ever received.
Now Soler bears down on his back foot more, taking his stance a bit off-center to see the pitch on a level that’s more even with his gaze. His depth perception is better than it’s ever been. Ideally, he’ll have a higher success rate on pitches thrown inside now that his barrel is quicker to the ball.
“We just started to try,” Soler said. “We came here to try. If one thing doesn’t work for you, you have to try something different. … I have a lot more consistency here in the cage than before.”
And if he finds himself out of whack in the box, this time he will know exactly how to fix it.
“He can step out of the box, take a deep breath, re-cover his thoughts and get back in with his plan,” Tosar said. “Before, there wasn’t a whole lot there.
“He’s got the information on what his swing needs to feel like and he’s got a good feel for it, which is huge.”
There’s no guarantee this solution will cover up the holes in Soler’s game. There is no sense yet whether or not he’ll fall back into the patterns of the past.
But the tools are in place for Soler to continue his upward trajectory when the Royals convene for spring training in Surprise, Arizona, later this month. Royals assistant general manager for international operations Rene Francisco has checked in on Soler throughout the winter and been impressed by his progress. Videos have been sent back to the Royals front office, and general manager Dayton Moore has felt encouraged, too.
This is a level of patience Soler has rarely shown.
The Royals — and Soler, too — hope something comes of it.
“He just needs to be in a situation to play every single day,” Moore said. “His offseason has been terrific. … It’s all in there. The talent is there. We believe in him a great deal.”