After failing miserably in his short stint in the big leagues in 2006, nearly everyone has written off Alay Soler as a non-prospect and someone with little or no chance of going north with the Mets come April.
However, Soler could very well be the biggest surprise of the spring.
The first thing to consider is that Alay Soler’s MLB debut wasn’t THAT awful. The way he left the Mets’ roster — begging out of a game against the crosstown rival Yanks, which turned out to be a 16-7 loss — left a bad taste in the mouth of every Mets fan and writer. He gave up 8 runs without getting out of the third inning, and later we found out about a calf injury that may or may not have been the cause of his demise. This horrible, shameful performance came just five days after getting shellacked by the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park — when he gave up eight runs on ten hits in just four and one-third innings. And that performance was preceded by a very ordinary 3-ER, 8-hit, 5-inning start against the Cincinnati Reds. After seeing those three starts in a row, most Mets supporters were glad to find out he suffered a season-ending injury.
Let’s rewind, and look at his 2006 season as a whole.
Alay Soler had not pitched in organized ball for over a year because of visa problems. So 2006 was his first professional season and his first season pitching in the United States. Isn’t it fair to cut the guy some slack? Let’s remember that Major League Baseball is played by human beings, and sometimes the human element can affect a man’s performance. (This is easy to forget in the age of Fantasy Baseball leagues.) Yes, Soler is a professional and being paid to play ball. But just for a moment put yourself in his shoes. Imagine leaving your home, family, and country behind to try a new job. Further picture that in the process, you are unable to perform your job for over a year, and now you must settle into a brand new country, where everything is faster and more advanced than you are used to, where you don’t understand the language, and you’re now competing at the highest level of your profession in the world. What Alay Soler attempted to do last year is akin to the best puddle-jumper pilot in Belize moving to Cocoa, Florida to man the space shuttle for NASA — after not being in the air for a year. Do you think the guy might have some difficulties taking off?
I sincerely believe that not playing competitively for a year, and adjusting to American life and American baseball cannot be downplayed. Many Soler critics point to his look of being out of shape and his expressive body language on the mound as being faults, and big reasons why he couldn’t succeed at the big-league level. Well all I can say to that is this: Luis Tiant, David Wells, Rob Dibble. When you’re going good, the emotional outbursts are defined as “intensity” or “colorful”, and chubbiness as “extra weight behind the ball” or “a little round”. When Soler was in Cuba, he could get away with being overweight and emotional, because his talent was that much better than everyone else on that tiny island. After seeing his competition firsthand in the US, Soler might very well understand that he needs to whip himself into better shape, and learn to keep a cooler head.
Further, let’s forget the negatives for a moment and look at the positives. In his first try at pro ball, he was placed at the lowest level: Port St. Lucie, A-ball. He dominated in six starts and was quickly moved up to AA Binghamton, where he made three equally impressive starts, and then was brought up to the bigs. How many pitchers, in the history of baseball, made it to MLB after making less than 10 minor league starts, and none above AA? Critics are careless to compare Soler to his Cuban predecessors Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras, who had almost immediate success in the bigs. Those two pitchers were, 1. extraordinary in every aspect; and 2. well into their 30s when they made their MLB debuts. Soler’s skillset projects a ceiling of a #4 starter, maybe a #3 — not a Cy Young candidate. And though he’s no spring chicken at age 26, remember he missed a year and only had a few years’ international experience — as opposed to the full decade plus that El Duque and Contreras had to hone and perfect their skills.
So, with less than 10 minor league games under his belt, Alay Soler came into the rabid, pressure-filled, New York City environment and managed to win his MLB debut by beating the toughest NL East rivals, the Phillies, at Shea, with an impressive 6-inning performance — one in which he very obviously was shaking with nervousness all the way through. His second start was not great — he gave up seven runs in five innings. But, he came back from that humbling loss to beat the eventual NL West Champion LA Dodgers with an impressive 6-inning, 1-ER outing, then followed it to pitch a 2-hit, complete-game shutout. He had another solid six-inning start (which was a no-decision) against a strong Baltimore Oriole lineup that included a DH, before the three-game disaster that effectively ended his MLB stint.
Up until those three games, things were looking pretty darn bright for Soler. So let’s put those games under the microscope. The first loss was to the Cincinnati Reds, a decent offensive team that finished second in the league in both homeruns and walks. Soler didn’t pitch well — he gave up eight hits in five innings — but he didn’t give up a dinger and he wasn’t the losing pitcher. Even after that so-so outing, Soler’s ERA for the year was still 3.32. Then he goes into Fenway Park to face the second-best lineup in all of baseball, in the smallest park in baseball. If you have never been to Fenway then you will not understand how difficult it can be for a rookie pitcher to walk onto the mound, never mind face a lineup with Manny and Big Papi in the middle. It’s like being inside of a toy stadium, the left field wall hovering over your shoulder, seemingly within spitting distance of the pitcher’s mound. Soler looked scared out of his mind, and that was before Lastings Milledge’s infamous misplay of a Manny Ramirez fly ball. Soler got out of the inning after that goof, but still looked shellshocked when he started the fifth inning — an inning he never escaped.
Now again, put yourself in Soler’s shoes. After getting destroyed by monsters of all shapes, colors, and sizes in Fenway, you have to go to legendary Yankee Stadium and face an All-Star lineup of batters. Would your confidence be shaken a bit? Would it be easy? Let’s assume that you already have some tightness in your calf before you get out there … are you giving yourself half a chance?
Personally, I’m going to give Alay Soler the benefit of the doubt. I assume he really was injured, and believe he may have been injured as early as the Cincinnati game. And I believe that he has the skills to be moderately successful at the MLB level, capable of occasionally throwing a gem. After a steep uphill battle, he reached the apex and then ran into a combination of bad luck and the very best hitters in the world. If he worked on his conditioning in the offseason, and attacks spring training with passion and focus, I think he has a realistic shot of winning the #5 spot in the rotation. He won’t be an ace, but I think he can develop into a reliable competitor and innings-eater along the lines of a Bobby J. Jones or Pedro Astacio. Since no one is expecting anything from him, he’ll be relieved of outside pressures — which can only help his chances. Should he succeed, he will be the surprise of the spring.