Today, the Chicago Cubs officially traded leftfielder Alfonso Soriano to the New York Yankees for pitching prospect Corey Black. The Cubs will pay $17.7 million of the $24.5 million remaining on Soriano’s contract after he waived his no-trade clause and accepted a move back to the team that gave him his start in the majors. This move was inevitable, and so was the mixed reaction from the Cubs fanbase, which ranged from “Finally, that lazy bum is outta here” to “WE’LL MISS YOU, AL!!!”. Attempting to be as objective as I can, though, he was both a joy and sometimes, pain to watch during his tenure with the Cubs.
Oh, the joy when it was reported that the Cubs, fresh off a 2006 season that was and is arguably the worst of my lifetime, were aggressively pursuing free agent LF Alfonso Soriano, previously of the Washington Nationals. Then-new Cubs manager, Lou Piniella, speaks Spanish fluently and it was suggested that this would only put the Cubs further ahead of other teams. It also helped matters that the Cubs’ brass had been given the green light to throw large amounts of loot at players.
Before Sori signed his mammoth 8-year, $136 million contract, he turned down extension offers of $50 million and $70 million from the Nationals. The Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies expressed interest, the latter looking for protection for a once-frightening first baseman, Ryan Howard. Supposedly the Los Angeles Angels offered Soriano $80 million over 6 years plus the chance to play second base, but he obviously turned down the chance to botch grounders while forcing Howie Kendrick to play out of position.
Allegedly, Soriano wanted a contract similar to the 7-year, $119 million one that a 27 year-old, switch-hitting centerfielder Carlos Beltran had received from the New York Mets after the 2004 season. Never mind that Beltran had just missed the 40-40 plateau in ‘04, or that in the postseason, he hit .435, slugged 1.022 and hit 8 homers while driving in 17 in just 12 games. I assume that while even Sori had to have known that he wasn’t the player, at 30, that Beltran was at 27, he brought a different skillset, especially from the leadoff spot. Soriano has been listed at 6’, 180 pounds for as long as I’ve known, which makes his hitting 24 homers in 78 games at the cavernous RFK Stadium in 2006—once the decrepit home of the Nationals—all the more impressive. In 131 games batting leadoff, he put up a line of .294/.368/.588 for a Nationals team that was downright awful. He led all National League outfielders in assists in his first season as an everyday outfielder. It didn’t seem that he would break down over the length of a long contract, in part because of his slender frame.
The signing just made sense, even though I think mostly everyone knew the years and money were too much, collectively. The Cubs would get their leadoff man, a 30-30 guy at the least for the next 4-6 years, and someone who could make things happen at bat, on the bases and in the field. A freakin’ dynamo.
All was well even though Sori started off very slowly with the Cubs. What mattered was that he was a man possessed in the last two weeks of the regular season, hitting .367 and slugging .833 as the Brewers finished choking away the division, allowing the Cubs to win the 2007 division crown. While I don’t agree with some opinions that he singlehandedly carried the Cubs to the playoffs, it was shocking that he finished only 12th in MVP voting. The Cubs were 73-61 in his starts and if Soriano played all 162 games in ’07, his numbers extrapolated would have been 40 homers, 84 RBI, 50 2B, 23 SB. Hell, even if he could have gone out there for 150, his line would have been 37/78/47/21. Hitting leadoff. And on a 2008 Cubs team that was in my opinion the best in all of baseball, he almost matched his HR-RBI numbers (29-75) while equaling his ’07 stolen base total of 19 and walking more (43 to 31) while playing in only 109 games due to injury. It’s scary to think that this was a leadoff man on a pace for 40 HR/100 RBI if he could have managed to play 150 games, at the least.
With two division crowns—albeit two embarrassing sweeps that we won’t discuss right now—in the first two years of what appeared to be a new regime of sorts, there really wasn’t much reason to bitch about anything Cubs-related.
Again, there was something funky about this deal from the start. Signing a player who is 30 years old to an 8-year contract is just risky business, even if he’s been a healthy player throughout his career. To compound this mistake, Sori was given a back loaded deal which called for him to make just $41 million from his age 31-33 seasons, but $95 million from age 34-38. Topping it off was the dreaded no-trade clause. If it wasn’t bad enough that his albatross of a contract would scare off potential trade partners, the Cubs gave the man the ability to be presented with an opportunity to be moved and respond, “Nah, I’m good.”
For his gaudy contract, I do not fault Alfonso Soriano. Nor do I understand why anyone of sound mind would. I love pizza, and if someone were to offer me $136 million over 8 years to eat pizza about 200 days a year, I’d happily sign my eating rights away. However, there will always be some resentment towards the player in this kind of situation because he, well, signed the deal. It’s true; professional athletes have taken cuts in pay. But this was Soriano’s first chance at a long-term, sizable contract. It’s not the Cubs’ fault that they were duped by a pretty good player who had always been surrounded by great—and sometimes advantageous—circumstances.
First, Soriano became the Yankees’ everyday second baseman in ’01, at 25 years old. 25 is probably about that age when most organizations figure whether or not a prospect is ever going to cut it, but Sori’s situation was different. He had already spent a few seasons playing in Japan. It was rumored that he didn’t like the rigorous practice and workout routines, which is how he ended up “privately” auditioning his skills for a few Major League teams and ended up with the Yankees. I’m not aware of his organizational ranking before 2001, but I can assure you that on a roster like the Yanks’ around that time, he wasn’t going to be counted on to be a savior.
After being traded to the Texas Rangers, he was given the chance to play a more prominent role on a young, Buck Showalter-led team that featured a lineup with first baseman Mark Teixeira, shortstop Michael Young, third baseman Hank Blalock and Kevin Mench. Despite playing in a hitters’ park with good hitters around him in the starting lineup and on the bench as well, Soriano wasn’t quite the force that he was on the ’04 team that finished 89-73, but wound up third in the division. After a better ’05 but a much worse team record, he found himself in DC where again, he put up monster numbers in a losing effort.
You’re damn right I noticed that Soriano was more than likely trying like a madman to get to the 40-40 mark in a lost 2006 season with the Nationals. I had only seen him play in the outfield a handful of times, but didn’t understand why he thought he could go from second baseman to centerfielder so easily. His reported defiance of then-Nats manager Frank Robinson in 2006 irked me, mostly because I love Frank Robinson and if he tells your ass to go play middle second field, you just find a glove and go do it. I figured someone was going to wildly overpay Soriano, but just didn’t honestly believe that the Cubs had the balls to do it. Skill-wise, Sori has never been the ideal leadoff hitter from a prototypical standpoint. He strikes out way too often and doesn’t walk nearly enough. He definitely had his times during the Cubs in which he put them on his back for several weeks, but there were also substantial stretches of play in which the guy was simply hard to watch, whether chasing a wayward slider for the umpteenth time or misplaying a ground ball. I think it’s insane when fans comment on athletes and the effort they put in, but I’d love for someone to prove to me that Sori gave 100% effort, every day he was out there. This is not an indictment of Sori, but rather the realization that it’s almost unreasonable to expect any person to give maximum effort at such a high level on a repeated basis.
It would be great if we could just like and dislike professional athletes as we choose, within reason, of course. I once argued with some character on Twitter that booing a guy like Sori, especially when you’re a fan of the Cubs, is perfectly fine. It’s perfectly fine in the way that fans can get him to take a curtain call after having a fantastic day at the plate. I have booed Soriano for taking a rather circuitous route on a misplay of a fly ball only to eventually commit a throwing error. I have defended Soriano after a few geniuses booed him for not running to first after a dropped third strike…even though first base was occupied and there were less than 2 outs. There have been times when Sori looked every bit worth the 8 years, $136 million. And there have definitely been times in which I’ve wanted to see him moved for a sturdier Gatorade cooler and Big League Chew. I don’t see the purpose of giving him a standing ovation should he have another plate appearance in Wrigley. On the same note, I wouldn’t understand why anyone would harbor hard feelings towards him. He won’t get credit from me for being a “class act” or “pro’s pro.” The man gets paid a king’s ransom to play a kid’s game. The least he could do is be not an asshole.
Nothing against Sori, but I won’t miss him all that much, only because players come and go with such a frequency nowadays that if you are really into a particular team, it would be unwise to let sentiment creep into fandom. Sure, he was a mostly good player, and sometimes he was very good. But he and other former Cubs had a window of opportunity, and I feel that his exit has officially closed it shut. This deal is symbolic in just that sense.
Because I saw the man play over 6-, 700 times, I’ll remember the poor plate discipline, defensive miscues, baserunning errors, mental lapses and frustrating trips to the disabled list. At the same time, I’ll remember his ridiculous plate coverage, all of the incredible outfield assists, the bursts of speed, clutch performances and his ability of late to play through the pain and be a productive player. Alfonso Soriano was a Cub, and nothing else. I thank him no differently than I would Juan Guzman, Kevin Foster, Scott Servais or any of the other guys who put on that Cubs uni, only to later move on.