With spring training getting underway, the 2018 fantasy baseball season is very nearly approaching. Each week, I will be evaluating one player’s stock for this year. This week, a former top prospect coming off a forgettable season, but who presents an interesting buy-low opportunity for 2018.
Jorge Soler, Kansas City Royals
2017 statistics: .144/.245/.258, 2 HR, 0 SB
Jorge Soler entered 2017 as a potential breakout player, a former top prospect who, in just over a full season’s worth of playing time from 2014-2016, had been an above-average hitter despite a bit of a strikeout problem. Because of the Cubs’ loaded outfield mix and some injuries, Soler never found consistent playing time. However, an offseason trade to Kansas City seemed to finally set him up for an everyday role, and a chance to take advantage of the top-of-the-scale raw power which had made him so well-regarded as a minor-leaguer. Instead, Soler flopped, posting a miserable 32 wRC+ in 110 MLB plate appearances, spending much of the year in Triple-A Omaha. In that limited time, everything went backwards; his strikeout rate spiked, his walk rate fell, and his batted-ball authority worsened. Despite his abysmal MLB performance, he was quietly stellar in Omaha, slashing .267/.388/.564 with 24 home runs in 327 plate appearances with the Storm Chasers. That minor-league success, a productive offseason, and a teammate’s suspension give Soler another chance to make good on his physical gifts in 2018.
Soler has reportedly shown up to spring camp about 20 pounds lighter in recent seasons, and Royals’ officials have lauded his early work in the corner outfield. While that, in itself, does little for his fantasy value, improved defensive performance could go a long way towards ensuring that Soler gets a chance at everyday playing time. Soler has been 16 runs below average in the corner outfield over the course of his career by Defensive Runs Saved (-10 runs by Ultimate Zone Rating), and with the Royals having a few young players whom the organization may rotate through Designated Hitter, Soler’s clearest path to everyday at-bats is through improved defensive performance. In addition, particularly for a player who has three times hit the DL with lower-body injuries, shedding some weight may be beneficial to his health. In a 2015 piece at Grantland, Ben Lindbergh found that players who claim to be in the best shape of their lives, the oft-mocked spring training cliché, do, on the whole, tend to exhibit improved health the following season. Lindbergh also found that those players are no more likely to actually improve their performance, so getting into better shape is far from a cure-all, but for a player with as lengthy an injury history as Soler’s, a commitment to fitness seems noteworthy.
The most interesting part of Soler’s offseason, though, was his work with hitting instructor Mike Tosar, who most notably helped to resurrect Yonder Alonso’s career in 2017. After working with Tosar, Alonso changed his swing path to hit more fly balls, tripling his career-high in home runs last season in the process. Soler, though, already has a fly ball approach. Instead, Tosar is working with his new project on improved pitch selection. Most of Soler’s 2017 MLB struggles can indeed be traced to poor pitch selection. Specifically, Soler easily set a career-low in zone swing rate last year, a curiously passive approach that explains his career-high strikeout rate despite a swinging strike rate in line with his previous marks. Whether the offseason work will translate to games, of course, is anyone’s guess. Soler himself acknowledged as much, but he noted that he feels that he has made “an incredible change” in his approach this offseason.
Improved defensive performance is not the only reason to believe that Soler should finally get a chance to play every day. The Royals likely will not be contending, for one, so they have an incentive to give Soler one more relatively long leash. Additionally, Soler’s primary competition for the right-field job, Jorge Bonifacio, was recently suspended 80 games for performance-enhancing drug use, leaving Soler competing with only Paulo Orlando for significant playing time.
Despite Soler’s dreadful MLB performance last season, he projects decently. Fangraphs’ Depth Charts estimates him to hit 23 home runs if he accrues a full season’s worth of plate appearances. Of course, the projections are agnostic to Soler’s offseason work and alleged approach change, so owners who believe that he may have legitimately improved in the past few months could easily take the over on those 23 homers and his projected .235 batting average. At his current ADP, 97th among outfielders, he is worth betting on based on that power upside, particularly given his minor-league performance last season and his clear path to immediate MLB playing time. Owners need not give him too long a leash, but at this point in drafts, there is ample opportunity to take risks. Soler deserves one last gamble.
2018 Player Profiles