By Mike Steffanos
Alay Soler is a right-handed pitcher who defected from Cuba in late 2003, receiving political asylum in the Dominican Republic. He pitched winter league ball in the Dominican Republic and signed a 3-year, $2.8 million contract with the Mets in September of 2004. Problems obtaining a visa kept him from entering the United States until November of 2005.
Here is a portion of his Baseball America scouting report on Soler from November of 2005, where he was ranked as the club's #10 prospect despite never having pitched in the States yet:
Strengths: Soler has two plus pitches, a 91-94 mph fastball and a low-80s slider with exceptional depth. The Mets think his big-game experience in Cuba-he helped them win the 2002 World University Games-will serve him well under the bright lights of New York.
Weaknesses: Using a three-quarters delivery, Soler sometimes gets under his pitches and leaves them high in the strike zone. The harder he throws, the more he struggles with his fastball command. Many Cuban defectors have needed time to adjust to a new culture and lifestyle in the United States.
The 26-year-old Soler went to spring training with the Mets last spring with some hopes that his age and international experience might allow him to make the big club out of camp. This proved not to be the case as Soler had an unimpressive camp. Soler has a stocky build and will never pass for skinny, but he seemed out of shape and there was a sense of disappointment in both his performance and conditioning. He was assigned to Class A St. Lucie where he dominated much younger players, earning himself a promotion to AA-Binghamton where he continued to perform well. This, combined with Jose Lima's failure to plug the hole in the Mets pitching staff, earned Soler a promotion to the big club in late May.
Soler debuted against the Phillies on May 24. He walked the first three batters he faced and was touched up for 3 runs in the first inning, but settled down and pitched effectively through the sixth in a no decision. His next time out was an ugly beating at the hands of the Diamondbacks where he struggled with his control. Just when it seemed as if another candidate for the rotation was bombing out, he came back with a 7 inning, 1 run performance in LA, a complete game shutout in Arizona, and a solid 6 inning performance against the Orioles. In that 22 inning stretch he only allowed 12 hits and 6 walks. It looked as if the Cuban was poised to grab a job for the remainder of the year.
In his next start against the Reds he wasn't great, struggling with his control in a no decison. The next time out in Fenway Park against the Red Sox he was terrible. The Sox hit everything he threw up there, pasting him for 8 runs on 10 hits in 4-1/3 innings. The next time out against the Yankees he was staked to a 4-run lead, but couldn't even make it out of the third as he gave up another 8 earned runs. After the game we found out he was suffering with a strained calf muscle, and that was the last we saw of Soler in 2006 for the Mets -- indeed, he only came back late in the year to make 3 minor league starts.
Here are Soler's numbers from all levels in 2006:
|2006 Major and Minor League Stats -- Alay Soler|
|St. Lucie (A)||6||30.0||3.9||9.9||2.7||0.0||0.60||.129|
|Minor League Totals||12||64||6.2||10.7||2.5||0.1||2.53||.191|
Although he showed some promise while with the Mets, the velocity of his fastball seemed to hover more in the mid 80s than in high 80s to low 90s where he was supposed to be, although it did have some movement on it. Still, when he wasn't getting his curve over he seemed tentative and nibbled at the strike zone. How much the calf was bothering him is anyone's guess. If he's going to make an impact this season, it's obvious his physical conditioning needs to be better.
For all that, he showed some promise that can't be discounted. In a farm system that features some quality, but not much quantity, Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein currently rates him as a "Good" prospect, #5 in the system. According to Goldstein:
The Good: After waiting nearly 18 months to get visa issues resolved, Cuban refugee finally arrived in the states and worked his way to the majors in short order. 88-92 mph fastball is a plus pitch due to command and movement - he uses the pitch primarily to set up his slider, which is among the best in the system.
The Bad: Between being a Cuban defector and the visa problems, Soler is old for a prospect and has little to no projection. The Mets were not thrilled with Soler's conditioning, and some blame the injured calf that slowed him in the second half on it.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A number three or four starter.
The just released top 10 Mets prospect list from Baseball America's Matt Meyers has Soler at number 10, and lists concerns with Soler's conditioning and mental approach last year:
Strengths: Soler has success when he attacks the strike zone with his low-90s fastball and above-average slider.
Weaknesses: Soler is his own worst enemy and gets in trouble when he tries to nibble and play around with his offspeed stuff in what looks like an attempt to emulate fellow Cuban Orlando Hernandez. He needs to dedicate himself much more to conditioning after making a bad first impression.
The Future: If Soler plays to his strengths, he has the chance to be a solid back-of-the-rotation starter or setup man. How much time he spends getting in shape likely will dictate his assignment in 2007, when he could contribute in the majors.
Soler will be listed at 27 next season and, like many Cuban defectors, may be older than he admits to being. In any case, it's debatable how much any more time in the minor leagues will help. Some feel that Soler is better suited for the bullpen than a starting role, and that may be true. Without knowing exactly how much he was hindered by that calf injury in his time with the Mets, it's difficult to guess what we could expect from Alay Soler in 2007.
There will be an open competition for starting jobs this spring, and Soler is certainly a guy who will be in the mix. I hope he will report to camp in better shape and take one of those jobs for his own. He'll never have a better opportunity. However, unless he comes out throwing a lot more strikes than his first time through here, I just can't find it in me to be overly optimistic for Alay Soler. Perhaps the extra year to get used to life in the United States will make the difference for him.
Some wondered if Soler's failure to attack the strike zone in his poor performances from 2006 showed a lack of intestinal fortitude on the part of the Cuban. I don't think so, but I do believe it showed a level of immaturity and lack of clear focus. Combined with whatever physical problems he was experiencing, I just thought he looked a little overwhelmed at times. To my mind, he seemed unprepared to pitch in the major leagues.
It will be very simple with Alay Soler. He needs to get into good physical shape and improve his mental focus. He has a chance to help this team -- whether as a starter or in the bullpen -- but if he fails to grab the opportunity this time around, it won't come again for him with the Mets.
Note: This preview was updated 1/8/2007 at 1PM.
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Alay Soler (This Article)
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