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No more ‘lazy’ plays: Cubs’ Jorge Soler plans to bring playoff focus to season

Jorge Soler

MESA, Ariz. – Jorge Soler didn’t exactly say he coasted during his up-and-down regular season as a rookie last year.

But unless something was lost in the English part of the translation from coach Franklin Font, the Cubs’ outfielder admitted a missing level to his game – a level he decided to eventually bring to the playoffs.

“There was a lot of focus in the games in the playoffs,” Soler said through Font. “During the season I got out of my mind when I failed [at the plate], and I got a little lazy defensively. During the playoffs I had more focus on my at-bats, more focus on my defense.”

A slow start in the cold of April and two stretches on the disabled list (ankle, oblique) contributed to a .262, strikeout-loaded regular season with relatively little power.

But against the Cardinals in the National League Division Series, he reached base in nine consecutive plate appearances (including five walks and two homers), and then went 5-for-12 (.417) with a homer and two doubles against the Mets in the NLCS.

“We need to get that playoff performance out of him on a more consistent basis,” said manager Joe Maddon, who blamed Soler’s focus lapses during the season on his youth, inexperience and a frustration over his slow start.

“I don’t think he processed the moment as well as he possibly could,” Maddon said. “I think he saw [the playoffs] as a fresh beginning, and with that we saw what he’s capable of doing.”

If Soler, the incumbent right fielder, thought he had a lot to process before the last few days, the challenge just got bigger with the return of center fielder Dexter Fowler to the Cubs and the shift back to right field for most games for Gold Glove newcomer Jason Heyward.

Maddon said he’s working through playing-time scenarios for an outfield mix that grew again Friday with the signing of Shane Victorino for a potential spot-starting, pinch-hitting, and mostly late-inning defensive role.

For now, the right-handed hitting Soler and lefty hitting Kyle Schwarber look primarily like platoon left fielders.

Maddon also said he expects to determine a lot of the plan as spring training plays out, watching how the young players handle different assignments.

What he needs to see from Soler specifically?

“My biggest thing with him is just that he understands how to get ready to play every day,” Maddon said. “I’m not looking for great plays. I’m not looking for 30 homers. I’m not looking for .310. It’s just a matter of getting the young player to understand the major leagues on a daily basis, that his prep work is good, that he’s ready to play when asked to play.”

“Right now I don’t worry about my playing time. I’ll do what I can to help the team,” said Soler, whose primary focus is, well, focus.

Soler, who turned 24 Thursday, said he lost about 10 pounds through his winter workouts and hopes to lose “a little more.” He’s not very familiar with left field, he said, but plans to “work hard to get better every day.”

And focus.

“I’m really anticipating seeing more of the side that you saw at the end of the year [in the playoffs],” Maddon said, “as opposed to when he was chasing pitches more in the middle part of the year the game wasn’t as crispy.”

Note: Left-hander Travis Wood and right-hander Kyle Hendricks are the first two scheduled pitchers for the Cubs in their spring opener Thursday against the Brewers. The frontline guys in the rotation are scheduled toward the back end of the spring rotation to build their workloads more gradually – with Jake Arrieta in particular monitored closely this spring because a career-high workload last season.