Two of last season’s top three home run hitters were originally acquired in trade. NL champ Pete Alonso was drafted and developed by the Mets, but NL runner up Eugenio Suárez and AL leader Jorge Soler were plucked from other organizations early in their MLB careers. MLBTR’s Connor Byrne just looked back at the Reds’ brilliant acquisition of Suárez. It only seems fair to give the Soler trade its due.
Soler was a known commodity long before he signed a pro contract. His name appeared on MLBTR pages more than thirty times before he finally agreed with the Cubs as a twenty-year old international amateur in 2012. He immediately found himself on top prospect lists and quickly tore through the minors, making his MLB debut a little over two years after signing.
Despite an exceptional debut, Soler never quite established himself amidst a crowded outfield mix on the North Side. In 765 cumulative plate appearances from 2014-16, he hit .258/.328/.434 (106 wRC+) with 27 home runs. It was passable production, but not enough to consistently crack a lineup with Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora, and Kyle Schwarber on hand, to say nothing of infielders like Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist capable of manning the grass. Even with Fowler departing as a free agent, the Cubs’ outfield looked like an area of surplus. (It hasn’t really borne out that way, but it looked like a strong group at the time). That made Soler a reasonable trade candidate for a team looking to defend a World Series title.
That offseason, the Cubs and Royals indeed lined up on a deal. With their own competitive window soon to close, K.C. acquired the 24-year-old slugger for contract-year reliever Wade Davis. It was perfectly understandable from the Chicago organization’s perspective. Aroldis Chapman was to sign elsewhere just a day later. The bullpen looked like the relative weak spot on a win-now club. As MLBTR’s Steve Adams pointed out at the time of the deal, Davis had some red flags (injuries and a slight velocity loss), but he was fresh off an utterly dominant three-year run in Kansas City.
Indeed, the Cubs mostly got what they bargained for from Davis. He did regress a bit in 2017, as Steve suggested he might. But Davis was still quite good in Chicago, working to a 2.30 ERA/3.38 FIP in 58.2 innings. The Cubs lost to the Dodgers in the NLCS, but that was the fault of their offense, not Davis. The right-hander has fallen apart since signing with the Rockies after that 2017 season, but the immediate returns on the deal were positive for the Cubs. That wasn’t the case for the Royals.
Soler spent the first month of that season on the injured list with a strained oblique. When he returned in May, he was dreadful, hitting .164/.292/.273 and earning a demotion to Triple-A. Soler did hit well in the minors, but 2017 was undoubtedly a disappointment. He seemed to reestablish himself in 2018, hitting well until suffering a season-ending toe fracture in June. Everything clicked in 2019, though.
Most importantly, Soler stayed healthy last season, playing in all 162 games. He increased his hard contact rate to a career-high 46.7% and dropped his infield fly ball rate to a career-low 8.8%. He made the most contact of his career and continued to draw walks at a hefty clip (10.8%). All told, Soler’s .265/.354/.569 slash (136 wRC+) placed him in the top 20 qualified hitters leaguewide. Even at pitcher-friendly Kauffman Stadium, Soler paced the Junior Circuit in home runs with 48. Statcast data supported the breakout, as Soler finished in the 95th percentile or better in average exit velocity, hard contact rate and expected weighted on-base average. Even as a mediocre defensive outfielder who’s best suited for DH work, that’s plenty productive. Soler was worth nearly four wins above replacement last season, per both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference.
The Royals are no doubt thrilled with the acquisition of Soler at this point. He’s finally emerged as the middle-of-the-order force many expected. Steve Adams explored the possibility of the sides lining up on an extension in September. Controlled through 2021, Soler could alternatively be a key trade chip for the rebuilding club if the sides can’t reach a long-term agreement.