Has it really been seven years? We were so young then, weren’t we? On that November Sunday when the Cubs threw silly money at the flawed, but best free agent on the market and brought Alfonso Soriano to town. The contract seemed way too long. Eight years for a guy who relied as much on his speed as his power. We learned later that though Jim Hendry would eat shit for the deal for years, that then-Cubs president John McDonough and still Cubs-toady Crane Kenney had tacked on the two years and $38 million to the offer that brought Soriano to town. They even put a no-trade clause on it, as though the contract itself wasn’t going to serve as one.
And, Soriano showed up and the Cubs put him in centerfield and he looked lost, and he didn’t hit, and he got booed a lot. And they moved him to left, which meant there was no place to play Matt Murton! Oh, the horror! And eventually Soriano hit. That’s when we started getting used to the absurd hot streaks he could go on.
As the weather heated up, so did he and the Cubs were starting to win a terrible division that year, but in early August, Soriano blew out a tire and went on the DL.
When he came back he was hotter than ever. In September of 2007, he hit 14 homers and drove in 27 runs. For a stretch it felt like he led off every game with a homer. The Cubs eeked out a division title the night Greg Maddux (of the Padres) beat the Brewers while the Cubs were watching on a TV in the Reds clubhouse.
The contract was totally worth it!
Well, no. It never was. And Soriano paid for it in a way. Cubs fans are not the most cerebral lot, so he got booed a lot. His legs started to betray him, almost from the beginning of his time with the Cubs. There were times when it looked like he wasn’t running hard. There were also times when he just wasn’t running very hard.
He loved to stand at home plate and watch his majestic drives land in the bleachers. Sometimes, though, those pesky things hit the wall, and he’d then be seen trying to turn it on and salvage a double out of it.
His outfield play, for most of his seven seasons with the Cubs was terrible. He took bad routes to balls, he had a nervous habit where he jumped at the ball even on routine flyouts. His one redeeming outfield skill was that he could throw, and as teams tried to take advantage of his awkwardness in the outfield, he threw out a fair share of runners. He had 19 outfield assists in his first season with the Cubs alone. That’s a testament to how many teams were willing to take an extra base on him. Odds are it still worked out at a fairly good clip.
There always seemed to be something with Soriano. He had batted leadoff so often, and so well in his career that even when he couldn’t run he didn’t want to bat anywhere else. He was never a great on-base guy, but when he could no longer leg out a few extra hits here and there his OBP really started to dip.
He bristled at being asked to bat anywhere but first. That didn’t endear him to anybody.
His postseason failings were big. He went 3-28 in the Cubs first round playoff sweeps in 2007 and 2008 and struck out eight times.
By 2009 the contract really was a killer. The Cubs were bad (and going to stay that way) and he was slipping from a .291 hitter with a .340 on base average in his first two Cubs seasons (and averaging 31 hr, 72 RBI and 19 SB) to hitting .240 with a .303 on base and stealing nine bases. And, he had five more seasons left on his contract.
He hasn’t been a top player since 2008, though he’s still paid like one.
His low point was in 2011 when Mike Quade took over full time and started batting Soriano seventh, because why wouldn’t you want more at bats for Carlos Pena and a .228 hitting Geovany Soto? Soriano finally showed some frustration, and it was aimed at Quade. Since we know Quade is a crazy person, it’s hard to blame Soriano for any of that.
Then, 2012 rehabbed his reputation. We found out some disturbing things.
For instance. The first day of spring training the Cubs sent outfield instructor/first base coach Dave McKay out to work with Soriano, and it was the first concentrated individual instruction Soriano had ever gotten in the outfield.
He was THIRTY-SIX and had been playing outfield for six years! When the Washington Nationals moved him from second to left in spring training of 2006 they told him to get a bigger glove and shag balls in batting practice. The Cubs did little more when he arrived in 2007. You’re paying a guy $18 million to play a new position and you just assume he’ll figure it out? Ugh.
So McKay worked with Soriano and suddenly Soriano wasn’t a complete joke out there anymore. He wasn’t 1993 Barry Bonds or anything, but he didn’t hop anymore, he took sensible routes to the ball. His footwork was so much better he didn’t seem scared of the wall anymore. He made one error all season.
When Theo Epstein took over in the offseason before the 2012 season he said his first impulse was to find a way to get Soriano out of town. Soriano’s reputation around the league was that he was still undisciplined on the field and over the hill. His contract was still pretty impossible to move, so he was still on the team, but Theo and Dale Sveum quickly saw that Soriano was valuable. He worked much harder than they thought he did. He was a better influence on the young players than they ever thought he’d be.
And…he was always happy. He liked being there. No small feat when you are stripping a team down and have no chance to win. Other players looked up to him, and he was setting a good example. Work hard, be positive and be accountable. Not a bad legacy.
Was it ever worth $138 million? Nope. But to blame Soriano for it, seems misplaced.
I never understood the anger at him. I’m not going to pretend he didn’t frustrate me over the years. He did. I remember driving to a party at my sister’s house one day when Soriano dropped a flyball in Pissburgh at a crucial point. My wife thought I was going to take the car across the median and just end it for all of us.
There have been lots of Cubs I have flat out hated. One of them, in fact, got his Cubs’ death sentence courtesy of Soriano. The end was finally there for Milton Bradley the day Soriano ripped him in the clubhouse. Soriano never did that to anybody, and it was the signal Jim Hendry needed that the Cubs could just send Milton home, forever and the team wouldn’t have a problem with it.
And so, when you read today that Cubs players were crying as they said goodbye to Soriano as he grabbed his stuff to fly to New York to rejoin the Yankees, you get a good picture of how much he’ll be missed.
He’s not a great player anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time. The move opens a spot in the outfield for the Cubs to run their motley crew of rejects and prospects through for a while, and this will actually help them as they try to chase down the Ryan Braun-less Brewers for fifth place and a better (and protected) draft pick.
But I’m going to miss him. He was one of the last direct links to those 2007 and 2008 Cubs, who were a lot of fun. Even if they did completely flop in the playoffs.
He is the last direct link to the way the Cubs used to do business. Overspend on a guy to try to scab a team together instead of actually building one.
Now, there’s no reason to look back. The Cubs are busy stocking the system with actual prospects, the business side is getting their Wrigley renovation and the promise that the resources will be there to not only hang onto these guys but supplement them is there.
It’ll be interesting to see who emerges as a leader now. Soriano was kind of reluctant, but when he did it (after Derrek Lee left) he did it well.
Besides, Soriano’s not really gone. His body is, but a big chunk of that albatross of a contract remains until next October. Just about the time the Cubs expect to be gearing up to be big boy contenders again.
So long, Alfonso. It was never dull.Read More