Since the Boston Red Sox sent out Hunter Renfroe in a buzzer beater of a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers right before the lockout went into effect, much of the focus both here on this site and among Red Sox fans in general has been on the outfield. That focus has been fairly widespread, but a majority of it has been on the top names on the market, whether it be Seiya Suzuki, Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, or whoever else folks may have in mind. The team has a splash in them at some point this winter, and this spot on the roster with both a need and multiple potential options available would seemingly be the logical place for it to happen.
Of course, just because something seems like the logical move from the outside does not mean that will actually come to fruition. It is a distinct possibility that the Red Sox do not end up with one of the top outfield players remaining on the market. It is also possible other moves could lead them to targeting multiple players from this market, perhaps one in a lower tier. Whatever the path, it is worth considering some of the mid-tier outfielders available, with Jorge Soler being one of the most interesting in that group.
Soler was once a top prospect in the Cubs minor-league system, making the Baseball America top 100 list three times in his minor-league career, appearing in the top 50 each time with his final appearance coming in the top 15. Upon reaching the majors in 2015, his debut was widely anticipated, and he didn’t disappoint in a relatively small cup of coffee. However, coming back the following two seasons his swing and miss was exposed, and he was merely an average hitter for two years before being traded to the Kansas City Royals. Things got better for Soler in a new uniform, peaking in 2019 with a 48-homer season, but taking a step back in 2020 to be more of an average hitter again.
That brought us to this past season, a year in which Soler was entering his final season before hitting the open market. Given that the 48-homer 2019 was still fresh in our minds heading into the 2021 season, he had a chance to set himself up for a decent payday this winter, but instead stumbled out of the gate. The now-29-year-old (he’ll turn 30 before Opening Day) put up just a 79 wRC+ with the Royals before a midseason trade to the Atlanta Braves turned everything around. Soler was a key part of Atlanta’s run to a championship, putting up a 132 wRC+ after the trade and continuing that into a postseason in which he’d put a bow on his second half by being named the World Series MVP.
The easy way to start here is to make a note warning against reading too much into a late-season surge and not forget about the early portion of the season, which in this case was a slightly larger postseason. That said, it’s worth noting there was a real change here for Soler. Above we alluded to swing and miss issues for the slugger, who has spent most of his career striking out somewhere between a quarter and a third of his plate appearances. That was the case with the Royals in 2021, too, as he carried a 27 percent strikeout rate. After the trade, that rate dropped way down to under 19 percent. Not only that, but his plate discipline numbers supported the change, with his chase rate cutting down to what would be a career-low over a full season while his swing rate on pitches in the zone would be the highest of his career.
Now, even that is certainly not evidence of some major change Soler made that can be expected to be carried forward. Part of it is likely that he was hitting in a better lineup than he had been in Kansas City, and thus was seeing more fastballs with Atlanta than he did in Kansas City, which is borne out of the pitch data from Baseball Savant. For our purposes, though, that could be seen as a positive as the Red Sox are not lacking for impact talent with which they’d be surrounding Soler. In theory, at his best he would be what the Red Sox are looking for as a right-handed power bat who could solidify the middle of the order. It’s just a matter of how likely it is he’d be at his best.
Adding in the defense only makes matters more complicated. Whereas someone like Suzuki is in part so appealing is because he could be slotted into right field and would actually represent a net positive for the defense as a whole. That’s not the case for Soler, who has been a consistent negative as an outfielder. You could make a case for some optimism on this front, as he’s spent most of his career as a right fielder and perhaps his shortcomings could be mitigated in the short left field in left field. But even so, the best case scenario is that he can be mostly hidden, which is not exactly the most ringing of endorsements.
I would be lying if I said those plate discipline changes after the trade to Atlanta didn’t pique my interest, especially given that he should be signing a reasonable contract from a team’s perspective. Especially with a new CBA on the horizon it’s hard to predict any deal, but FanGraphs reader predictions have been fairly close on most contracts thus far, and they pegged Soler for a two-year deal worth $18 million.
But even considering all of those things, I still think my interest in Soler would be mostly on the back burner and would certainly not be my priority heading into the other side of this lockout. If the Red Sox were to commit major resources to either the pitching staff or the infield rather than the outfielder that many of us are expecting, I could see Soler as an acceptable outfield addition depending on the impact of the moves made at the other position. Another intriguing option could be if they were to trade J.D. Martinez in the likely event the DH is added in the National League. Such a move would then allow for someone like Suzuki to be added with Soler coming in as a short-term solution as the DH.
Overall he’s an intriguing mid-tier free agent, and if those late-season adjustments were for real his right-handed power would be a great fit in the Red Sox lineup, but there are enough questions both offensively and defensively that there are better targets for the team to look into.
Data above is from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.