Royals

With Mike Trout out, Royals’ Jorge Soler is in position to win AL home run crown

Royals slugger Jorge Soler either genuinely didn’t see the irony or didn’t feel the need to acknowledge it. He hit his 42nd, 43rd, and 44th home runs — part of the greatest power hitting season in franchise history — in Chicago last week.

He put his power on full display as well as his growth in the city where he started his major league career, miles from a Chicago Cubs franchise that decided he wasn’t part of their “core” going forward. The Cubs couldn’t assure him the everyday playing time necessary for his development, and he was expendable in order to secure closer Wade Davis for their 2017 postseason run.

Soler, 27, matter-of-factly brushed off the idea that his two-homer game last Monday held any extra meaning with a polite “No, not really.”

The Cubs cut bait with Soler going into his age 25 season, and now he’s broken the Royals single-season franchise home run record and sits one home run behind Mike Trout, who will undergo foot surgery and miss the remainder of the season, for the American League lead.

Soler, who had 44 homers through Sunday, could pull into the league lead during the Royals’ seven-game road trip starting Monday in Oakland. The next closest home run hitters in the AL, Nelson Cruz and Gleyber Torres, trailed Soler by seven home runs entering Monday’s games.

“He never got enough at-bats, and that’s the thing,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “We knew when we got Jorge Soler that we were getting a great player. We traded one of the best closers in the game for him. We knew what type of player he was, but we also knew that it would take time. That he needed at-bats. That he needed experience. That he needed to stay healthy.”

Soler came to the Cubs as a 20-year-old Cuban with impressive right-handed hitting power and athleticism in a 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame. However, he had just 451 plate appearances in the minors from 2012-15. The Cubs played in him 101 major league games in 2015.

Mike Moustakas, the former Royals single-season home run record holder, had 1,314 plate appearances in the minors from ages 20-22, including 530 as a 20-year-old in 2009.

This season, Soler has played in all 152 games. Yost said he’ll continue to play him everyday to finish out the season.

Soler enters the final road trip of the season with a slash line of .257/.346/.554 to go along with 108 RBIs and 84 runs scored. Since the All-Star break, he’s batted .285 with a .404 on-base percentage.

“It’s a product of very hard work from Soler, but not only Soler, (quality control/catching coach) Pedro Grifol and (hitting coach) Terry Bradshaw,” Yost said. “Pedro got Soler, when we first got him, lined him up with people to hit with in Miami. He’s always kinda taken Soler under his wing. He grabbed him everyday and said look I’m going to show you how to use this computer so that you can formulate your own game plan. He was amazed about what you could learn on a computer, and now he’s religious with it.”

Bradshaw and Soler go through various drills to fine-tune his swing and recognize pitches as early as possible, while Grifol has stressed the importance of knowing how an opposing pitcher may attack him and winning crucial counts.

“They got the information, too,” Soler said of his daily work on the computer. “We have it as well. It’s an advantage knowing what his repertoire is — what’s he’s going to do in a certain counts, what he can do in certain counts. It helps my approach. It helps my focus. It just makes me better.”

When asked about the difference between his approach at the plate when he first came up to the majors and now, Soler said he always felt he had good hands and a good swing, but he’s become more patient and allowed the ball to get deeper toward the plate and rely on his hands.

Even while playing in what has statistically been proven as the worst ballpark in the majors for a right-handed hitter in Kauffman Stadium, Soler has a very good chance to become the franchise’s first home run champion.

The Royals have 12 games remaining for him to hit two more homers to eclipse Trout for the AL lead. He’s three behind the New York Mets’ Pete Alonso for the MLB lead (47).

“I know him from our Chicago days,” pitcher Mike Montgomery said after Soler broke the Royals single-season mark. “I knew back then he was a special player. When he came over here, I had no doubt he was going to do some big things. I’m just happy for him. He’s a good guy and a really good hitter. … You could just tell the growth in his approach at the plate. His ability to take good pitches and hit good pitches. I think he’s definitely one of the best hitters in the league and it’s finally getting the chance to show.”

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.
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