When preparing for a new season, fantasy baseball enthusiasts are always wanting to know who is going to be the next big breakout player. Drafting or picking up a player on waivers for his breakout season gives fantasy owners a feeling of superiority, a feeling of omniscience in some sense. Whether that feeling is justified or not is another question. But even if your team comes in last place, you can take ownership that you “knew” Jose Bautista would bust out for 54 HR, or that your hunch that R.A. Dickey would knuckle his way into a Cy Young Award panned out. So at The Backwards K, there is a series of posts titled “This Year’s…” where I will tell you who I think this year’s version of a 2014 breakout player will be, providing some background and analysis.
Around the internet I have seen White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu referred to as “El Dolor Grande,” which is the Spanish translation of “The Big Hurt.” For those who don’t know, The Big Hurt is the moniker that long-time White Sox broadcast announcer and the most hometown biased announcer ever, Hawk Harrelson, gave to one of the premiere sluggers of the 90’s, Frank Thomas. Although Abreu’s plate discipline skills pale in comparison to Thomas’ (though any player’s would), Abreu certainly causes pain to many baseballs, so El Dolor Grande is a fitting nickname. But if Thomas is The Big Hurt and Abreu is El Dolor Grande, how come Paul Konerko never got a badass nickname? All he got was “Paulie” as if he was a talking bird or one of the worst “comedians” of the 90’s.
Abreu had established himself as one of the top hitters in Cuba and he was able to defect from his motherland and he signed a 6-year/$68 million contract with the White Sox in August of 2013. That type of commitment in years and dollars to a player that had never seen a pitch in the Majors was very interesting, but clearly the Sox were heavily intrigued. There was no doubting that he had massive power potential, but there were questions if he could handle Major League pitching. Well, I don’t think there are any more doubts about that as Abreu had one of the best seasons of any hitter last year as he took home the American League Rookie of the Year Award. Overall, Abreu hit .317 with 36 HR, 107 RBI, 80 R, and 3 SB.
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Given the decent success of Yoenis Cespedes in his first few years in the Majors, Yasiel Puig’s highlight reel in his first two seasons, and Abreu’s monster rookie season last year, we have to give appreciation to the talent coming out of Cuba and to the teams’ scouts who are evaluating these talents. So when selecting who will be this year’s version of Abreu, it seems only fitting that two of my three candidates also hail from the country of Cuba. The first candidate is an American, Kris Bryant of the Cubs, who is one of the top prospects in baseball as he clobbered 43 baseballs into the seats between AA and AAA last year. However, he is currently not expected to debut in the Majors till May of this season and I think that initially he will struggle to make consistent enough contact to compete with the likes of Abreu. The next candidate is Yasmany Tomas from Cuba, who signed a six-year/$68.5 million contract with the Diamondbacks this past off-season. He just had to get that extra $500,000 to surpass Abreu’s contract, didn’t he? But despite the larger contract, the consensus seems to be that Tomas is more Cespedes-like than Abreu-like. So that brings us to the final candidate and I am going to say that this year’s Jose Abreu will be Jorge Soler.
In June 2012 at the age of 20, after defecting from Cuba, Soler inked a 9-year/$30 million deal with the Cubs, which seems like chump change compared to the contracts that his fellow Cubans received after him. Soler began to display his talents at the professional level in that same season and he quickly gained high prospect status as Baseball America ranked him as the #34 prospect after the 2012 season. In the 2013 season when he was at the high-A level, Soler was involved in a brawl that led to a suspension and he also battled a leg injury during this season. These factors made Soler lose a little bit of his luster, but the five-tool talent was still there. In the 2014 season, Soler once again battled a leg injury, but when he was on the field he was an absolute masher. In 54 games between AA and AAA, Soler hit for a combined .331 AVG with 14 HR and 51 RBI while also displaying the plate discipline to draw walks at an extremely healthy mark of 14.1%. A power hitter who could hit for average and take walks? I’m getting all hot and bothered just typing about it.
Soler received the call to the Majors on August 25 of last season and in his debut a couple days later, he drilled a Mat Latos pitch for a home run in his first Major League at-bat. Quite the first impression. Soler was a mainstay in the Cubs lineup for the remainder of the season and he completed his first stint in the Majors with a .292 AVG, 5 HR, and 20 RBI in 24 games, and he still has his rookie eligibility for the 2015 season. While he didn’t display the same type of plate discipline that he did in AA and AAA, it is not uncommon for youngsters when they first get called up. The important thing is that he showed that he can handle Major League pitching.
Soler’s outlook for the 2015 season is definitely pointing up. Soler is the likely primary cleanup hitter for the Cubs improved and diversified lineup of role-playing veterans, emerging prospects, and star players. The Cubs have new manager Joe Maddon who is one of the wisest minds in the game and seems to have a knack of getting the most out of his players and team. Furthermore, Soler, who is listed at 215 pounds, reportedly bulked up to 242 pounds over the off-season. Adding on muscle to his once lanky frame could give him some serious power potential. Don’t be surprised this year to see a section of the Cubs outfield bleachers be dubbed the “Soler Panel” (as in solar panel). My primary concern for Soler is his health as he has dealt with leg injuries the past two seasons. If he can remain healthy then there is 30 HR and superstar potential.
2014 Jose Abreu stats: .317 AVG, 36 HR, 107 RBI, 80 R, 3 SB, 131 K, 5 BB in 556 AB
2015 Jorge Soler projection: .284 AVG, 30 HR, 97 RBI, 73 R, 5 SB, 130 K, 47 BB in 536 AB
ʞonfidence Rating: 5ʞ out of 10ʞ
Other candidates to be “This Year’s Jose Abreu”: Yasmany Tomas, Kris Bryant