This is an article written by the Associated Press.
NEW YORK -- Alay Soler watched from the Dominican Republic as the Mets made a run at the National League Wild Card this season and lamented over the fact that he could do nothing to help them. If the hard-throwing Cuban has his way, though, New York will be in the thick of the race again in 2006 and he will be one of the reasons why.
Soler, 26, arrived in America on Thursday and began his first workouts as a Met on Monday at the team's Spring Training complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla. His long-awaited arrival comes nearly 16 months after he signed a three-year, $2.8 million deal with New York and almost two years after he reached the Dominican Republic following a harrowing escape from Cuba.
"It felt great," Soler said of stepping off the plane last week in Virginia. "I felt liberated and very content. I'm very appreciative that the Mets were able to believe in me and my talent. The most difficult part for me was that I wanted to help the team. To see them get so close in the Wild Card and not be able to contribute in the Minor Leagues or at the big league level really bothered me."
How much of a contribution Soler makes in 2006 remains a question mark at this point. He went 10-4 with a 2.01 ERA in 125 1/3 innings for Pinar Del Rio of the Cuban League in 2003, striking out 102 and walking only 17. His numbers, however, weren't as impressive while pitching for Escogido in the Dominican Winter Leaguer last year. He was 0-2 with a 5.28 ERA though he did strike out 24 batters in 15 1/3 innings.
Soler spent this summer working out in the Mets complex in the Dominican Republic and may pitch in Winter Ball again this year, although nothing has been decided. Still, he thinks he'll be ready when Spring Training begins, despite the fact the only competition he has faced during the past two years was during the few weeks he spent playing Winter Ball last year.
Joe Rosario, his agent, said based on conversations he's had with the Mets, he believes his client should be ready to go at the Major League level next season though Soler thinks wherever the club puts him will be fair.
Jim Duquette was the Mets general manager when the club signed Soler last July. Duquette has since moved on to Baltimore, where he has taken over as the O's vice president of baseball operations. Though Duquette only saw Soler on tape, he signed off the deal after staff members Rafael Bournigal [director of international scouting], Eddie Toledo [Latin America scout] and Bill Livesey [special assistant/scout] recommended the Mets pursue Soler.
"When we saw him, he was at the peak of his conditioning and we thought he had a chance to be a solid No. 4 starter," Duquette said. "He had two-plus pitches in his fastball and slider and we felt, at the time, that his signing changed the perception of the Mets in the Dominican Republic with the guys who tend to find and work for high-profile players. Before that signing, people didn't consider us as players in that market, but the main people on the island knew we were going to be players after that.
"Realistically, if he pitches the way I think he can, in the middle of the season, he should be on [the Mets] radar. He's going to have to go through some level of education in the Minor Leagues, but he's a guy that can move fast. I think he can be a starter or a reliever, but I don't know how much he's done out of the 'pen. But he has legitimate stuff."
A much-heralded hurler in his native country, Soler has spent nearly two years in the Dominican Republic after running into trouble with his former agent Joe Cubas, who also represented Cubans Orlando and Livan Hernandez. At the time of his arrival in the Dominican Republic, Cubas furnished Soler with an invalid Dominican passport and also asked for a 15 percent commission, three times greater than the normal agent fee.
Cubas then withheld the passport, which turned out to not matter because it was invalid, an act that got him into trouble with the Major League Players Association. It was then that Soler met up with Rosario of The Momentum Sports Group. Rosario already represented Roberto Sotolongo [who signed with the Cubs], who fled Cuba with Soler.
"They were really frustrated with what Cubas did and we did such a good job with the other guy, he insisted Alay sign with me," said Rosario, who also represents Raul Valdes, another Cuban who signed with Chicago. "This was tough but Alay had to go through a legal process of getting citizenship and naturalization in another country. He had to stick it out."
Part of sticking it out was sitting in a hotel room watching the playoffs and World Series with Rosario. Soler is close friends with White Sox starter Jose Contreras and spoke to him after every game Chicago played this postseason.
"I'm very happy for him," Soler said. "He's a great person, a great athlete and a great friend. I'm content because a person like him had to sacrifice a lot."
Soler said he spoke with Contreras on several occasions about what it's like to pitch in New York. Contreras, who went 15-7 this year for the Sox, began his Major League career with the Yankees before he was dealt last summer.
"From what I understand, it's very difficult because you have to keep the fans on your side 100 percent," Soler said. "It's tough. The thing I came away with mentally from pitching in Cuba is that you have to know where you're at and where you're going."
And where is Soler headed?
"To New York," he said with a laugh.
Personally, I can't wait to see this kid pitch. I've been doing a bit of research on this guy and if he is what everyone says he is, this could be a HUGE addition to the pitching staff.