One of the more fundamental differences between dynasty and re-draft formats lies in player values relative to your particular team’s win curve. Whether an owner is competitive or not typically has a great deal of influence on his or her decision-making. Owners traditionally won’t want to trade their top prospects if they’re not expecting to compete in the current season. On the other hand, if an owner is on the cusp of a championship run, it may make sense to trade prospects that are not quite All-Stars yet for more established players who can put the team over the top. Dynasty League players are faced with decisions like these every year, and decision-making in these instances determines a team’s direction for years to come
One player that may spur this kind of decision for the potential contenders is Chicago Cubs OF Jorge Soler. The 23-year-old was expected to contribute a significant amount to fantasy teams after a solid debut in 2014, but a down year in 2015 should have owners reconsidering his short-term value.
After defecting from Cuba in 2011, Soler signed a nine-year, $30 million deal with the Cubs. When he got his chance in the high minors in 2014, Soler didn’t disappoint, slashing .340/.432/.700 across three levels, mostly in Double-A and Triple-A. Soler showed he could handle a quick rise through the ranks, and the Cubs decided to give their prized outfielder a chance in the Windy City near the end of the 2014 season. Again, Soler handled the promotion well, slashing .292/.330/.573 and hitting five home runs in just under 100 plate appearances.
The quick ascension through the minors, paired with his stellar major league debut and very loud skills, had dynasty owners salivating for what was to come in 2015. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t much what they expected. Soler started off slowly, hitting .265 with 4 home runs through May, before an ankle injury sidelined him for most of June. When he returned, he hit .253 in July – somehow, in spite of a .356 BABIP – and struck out in nearly a third of his at-bats. Then, just when it seemed like Soler may finally be turning a corner in August, an oblique injury sent him to the disabled list for the second time in the season. Despite striking out nearly 40 percent of the time when he came back to the Cubs in September, Soler finished strong with 3 homeruns in 11 late-season games.
When we take a look under the hood, it isn’t too hard to see where it went wrong in 2015. Whether he was pressing, or advanced scouting reports started exploiting his weaknesses, Soler struggled to consistently make contact on pitches outside of the strike zone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as poor pitches generally equal poor contact. But even though Soler swung at virtually the same amount of pitches thrown outside of the zone as he did in his debut 2014 season, he made contact on 20 percent less of those swings, and that fueled a significant overall decline in his contact rate. The pitch recognition that helped Soler walk in 14 percent of his plate appearances in the high minors abandoned him in his first expanded taste of major league pitching, cutting that rate nearly in half.
It is common for young hitters to struggle with adjustments in their second seasons, as opposing scouting departments use the off-season to write the book on how to attack the hitter’s weaknesses. And judging by the pitch sequencing Soler saw in Round Two of his big league career, it appears that may have been the case here. Teams started to throw less fastballs and more breaking balls and off-speed pitches, keeping Soler off-balance. He was particularly vulnerable to sliders and changeups, as his performance against each rated in the bottom 20 among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances.
Some scouts had concerns about Soler handling right-handed pitching in the pros, but it was southpaws that surprisingly gave him more of an issue last year. Albeit in a small sample of 92 plate appearances, the right-hander struck out nearly one-third of the time, hitting .240 and finishing with .120 ISO – much worse performance than his MILB totals. Soler’s biggest issue with lefties was the aforementioned changeup. He saw 86 changeups from left-handers in 2015 according to Brooks Baseball, putting less than 13 percent in play, while whiffing on nearly a third of them – both rates that were well below-average. Soler will need to learn to lay off the off-speed pitches from opposite-side pitching if he’s going to crush them like he did in the minors, and that’s not necessarily a quick adjustment.
Soler’s rough first full season also included plenty of face time for a familiar foe: the injury bug. Injuries robbed Soler of many valuable at-bats as he ascended through the minor leagues, missing time with a variety of injuries, including a stress fracture in his tibia and hamstring injuries to both legs. In his first full season in the majors, he added an ankle and oblique injury to the growing list of maladies he’s suffered in just four seasons.
It wasn’t a completely lost season for Soler, though. He showed glimmers of hope throughout the year, capped off by a strong finish to the season power-wise, and tore the cover off of the ball in the first two rounds of the playoffs. In 25 postseason plate appearances, Soler slashed .474/.600/1.105, hitting three homeruns, three doubles, and walking six times.
Scouts saw immense raw power and a potential five-tool player when they first witnessed Soler on the diamond. Despite a down 2015, those tools probably haven’t changed. What did change, however, was Soler’s once-patient approach, which rapidly evolved into an overly-aggressive one. Soler not only finished second-worst in the majors in contact rate on swings outside of the zone, his in-zone rate also fell to the bottom 25. The flaws Soler showed last season certainly aren’t fatal, but they’re not easy-fix adjustments, either, and expecting a breakout in 2016 probably shouldn’t be your default assumption. If you have Soler on your team and you’re expecting to be near the peak of your win curve, it may make sense to trade him for a win-now player. On the other hand, if you’re not in contention for your league’s crown, it is certainly advisable to hold him as he continues to grow. You may be rewarded with a 30-homer monster if you do – it just probably won’t be this year.
Stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball