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With Schwarber out, Soler gets shot to win everyday job in left

Jorge Soler reached base nine consecutive plate appearances during last year's playoffs, including this home run against the Cardinals.

PHOENIX – Just when it looked like Jorge Soler had played himself to the far margins of the Cubs’ lineup plans in the early season, the sophomore slugger got a new lease on left field.

If there was such a thing as a beneficiary of Kyle Schwarber’s season-ending knee injury, it’s Soler’s personal opportunity to claim an everyday spot in the lineup he otherwise seemed to have no shot of earning.

“If he wants to take it and just run with it, it’s going to be there for him to do it,” manager Joe Maddon said. “If not we still have other guys we’ll utilize, too.”

With Jason Heyward signed to play right field, and Dexter Fowler returning in February to play center, Soler struggled with the move from right to left field during spring training and didn’t look good at times on the bases or at the plate.

When it comes to the new chance and fresh start?

“I’m ready,” he said (with coach Franklin Font helping translate).

In his first two starts since Schwarber’s injury, Soler had a single Friday against left-hander Robbie Ray and was hitless in Saturday’s 4-2 victory over the Diamondbacks with two strikeouts (seven pitches total) against former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke (0-2).

The Cubs were fine without his production on this night, with Kyle Hendricks (1-0) pitching 6 2/3 impressive innings in his season debut, and the Cubs scoring three quick runs off Greinke in the first.

Soler hits the ball as hard as anyone on the team, but struggles against breaking stuff. Maddon said he looks for progress more than instant impact.

“He’s the kind of guy that’s dripping with projection,” Maddon said of the 6-4, 215-pound Soler. “He’s got the kind of body everybody’s looking for in any major sport. Got a great arm, runs well. And then you’ve got this prodigious power.”

That’s what drew the Cubs to him as a 19-year-old free agent from Cuba, eventually signing him to a nine-year $30 million major league deal. More recently, he looked like a strong candidate to be traded with the redundancy of hitting talent up and down the Cubs’ 2016 lineup.

His big start to the playoffs last fall seemed to increase his value, as he reached base in nine consecutive plate appearances – admitting later that he focused more in the playoffs than regular season.

Schwarber’s injury would seem to put an abrupt end to any trade talk anytime soon, assuming the Cubs see that dripping projection start to emerge in some semblance of that player from October.

If nothing else, it seems to put Soler at an early crossroads in his career.

“I wouldn’t say it’s critical. We have a lot of faith in this guy,” Maddon said. “I think it’s eventually going to show up. I don’t want him to go into it thinking it’s kind of a do-or-die moment for him at all.”

Soler is still just 24. Because of injuries, last year’s primary starting right fielder has never played more than last year’s 105 games in any season at any level. Maddon said he plans to be patient with his youth and development, and cautious with his health and workload.

As much as anything, Soler’s ability to handle this new opportunity – much less run with it – could come down to the “confidence component that’s really big” with the big right-handed slugger, Maddon said.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo quietly took a moment in the clubhouse Friday to encourage Soler after the players got the Schwarber news.

“He said be ready to play every day,” Soler said. “I’m ready to try to help the team win.”

Maddon said he’s impressed with Soler’s work ethic and that he’s seen recent improvements in his running and fielding.

“He’s going to be really good,” Maddon said. “Maybe it’ll happen sooner now.”