Almora, Soler excited for start of AFL action
Highly regarded Cubs prospects are set to play with Mesa Solar Sox
MESA, Ariz. -- Jorge Soler has not played in a game since mid-June. Albert Almora's last game was on Aug. 4.
Almora and Soler, the Cubs' No. 2 and 3 prospects, respectively, as ranked by MLB.com, will be participating in the Arizona Fall League, and they also may be the most excited to play.
The AFL opens on Tuesday in the Phoenix area, with the Mesa Solar Sox -- or the "Soler Sox" as they are called in Cubs camp -- playing in Glendale against the Desert Dogs. Soler, 21, and Almora, 19, lead the Cubs' contingent, and will be joined by third baseman Kris Bryant, the team's first-round Draft pick in June, plus infielder Wes Darvill and pitchers Matt Loosen, Dallas Beeler, Lendy Castillo and Armando Rivera.
"When I found out I was coming here, it was great," said Almora, who was sidelined in the regular season with a groin injury. "Just to know I could start playing games, especially against the best competition out here -- these are the best of the best. This is what you want to do, this is what you play for. I'm super excited. This is a blessing and a great experience."
Soler couldn't hide his excitement during a workout at Fitch Park with the instructional league players last week. The Cuban outfielder was slowed because of a stress fracture in his left tibia.
"Since the first day he played in 'instructs' and saw live pitching, he's been ecstatic," Almora said.
Soler flashed a huge smile after Almora translated his answer. The two outfielders are close, and Almora, the Cubs' No. 1 pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, helps as interpreter, teammate and confidant.
Javier Baez, 20, the Cubs' top-rated prospect, was expected to join Almora, Soler, Bryant and the others in the AFL, but he opted to rest after playing 130 games between Class A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, belting 37 home runs and driving in 111 runs combined.
Bryant, 21, the second player selected overall in the First-Year Player Draft, missed time while waiting to finalize his contract. The third baseman, who led the country in home runs playing for the University of San Diego, totaled 36 games between the Cubs' Rookie League team, short-season Boise and Daytona, batting .336.
This season, Almora got off to a slow start because of a broken hamate bone sustained in Spring Training. His first game with Class A Kane County was May 22, and his season ended after 61 games on Aug. 4.
"With my groin injury, I really couldn't do much," Almora said of his rehab. "I'd stretch and then watch the game. Once they found out I wasn't going to be back for the season, they just sent me home for the last three weeks. I just rested at home, stretched as much as I could."
No baseball activities?
"Nothing," Almora said. "It was tough."
Soler was limited to 55 games with Daytona, and batted .281 with eight home runs, 13 doubles, one triple and 35 RBIs. He fouled a ball off his left shin in Spring Training, and the injury flared up before the Florida State League All-Star Game. He was picked for the World Team in the All-Star Futures Game, but did not play.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound outfielder had to wear a boot on his left leg, and spent most of his summer rehabbing in Mesa. He could stay in shape while wearing the boot as the athletic trainers allowed him to throw and hit in the batting cage.
"He could still do baseball," Almora said, a little jealous. "I couldn't do anything."
Soler's leg is healed, but he will continue to wear a shin guard on his left leg. Almora didn't waste any time making sure he was 100-percent ready to go.
"The day they cleared me and said I could do baseball activities, I tested it the moment I got on the field, to tell them whether I felt good or I didn't feel good," Almora said. "Thank God, everything was good, but I felt weak. I just hadn't done anything for two months."
Some of the Cubs front office, including president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, are expected to be in Arizona this week for the start of the AFL and to watch the prize prospects. Brian Harper, who was the hitting coach with the Cubs' Double-A Tennessee affiliate, will be on the Mesa staff to keep an eye on them on a day-to-day basis.
The AFL will be the toughest competition Almora has faced, while Soler does have some international experience playing for Cuba.
"It was unbelievable," Almora said about the 2013 season. "Coming into our first professional year, we're expected to play 140 games, get 400 at-bats under our belt, and I ended up getting 250."
Soler finished with 210 at-bats.
"It wasn't what we wanted," Almora said, sitting with Soler in the dugout at HoHoKam Stadium after a workout, "but everything happens for a reason."
And they'll try to make up for the lost time, starting on Tuesday.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.