November 20, 2006, is a day I remember well.  The Cubs announced the signing of free agent Alfonso Soriano, who had just completed a 46-homer season with the Washington Nationals. Soriano was already 30-years-old, so I was very curious how many years were on his deal. Four? Five? Not even close.

The Cubs stunned the baseball universe by inking Soriano to an eight-year, $136-million deal. The contract included a no-trade clause. I was in my car when I heard the terms, and I almost drove off the road. I clearly recall my first thoughts that day: “He’ll be 38 when this contract expires. This could be the worst signing in the history of Major League Baseball.”

To be fair, the Cubs were desperate for offense, and LF was certainly a weak spot. To be objective, Soriano hasn’t been the massive bust that so many fans believe. In fact, he’s been pretty productive at the plate when healthy. Let’s quickly review his first four seasons in Chicago:

  • 2007—135 games, .299/.377/.560, 33 home runs in 579 at bats
  • 2008—109 games, .280/.344/.532, 29 home runs in 453 at bats
  • 2009—117 games, .241/.303/.423, 20 home runs in 477 at bats
  • 2010—147 games, .258/.322/.496, 24 home runs in 496 at bats

He hasn’t been Albert Pujols, but you could do much worse in LF than Soriano (just ask the Chicago White Sox). Now, here are a few common rebuttals to that approach:

  • “He’s not being paid to be good or respectable. The Cubs signed Soriano to a super-star contract.” Clearly, he hasn’t delivered on that promise.
  • “Soriano’s poor defense negates his offensive contributions.” Without starting a debate over measuring defense, I don’t agree with this statement. Yes, Soriano can be a liability in LF, but how many plays in a game does he actually affect? In 2010, Soriano had 217 chances in 147 games, which is roughly 1.5 per game. If there’s a position where you can hide a potent bat, LF is a fine choice. Having said that, the “hop” is simply intolerable.
  • “Soriano doesn’t get on base enough.” Even the world’s biggest Soriano fan can’t argue with this one. Unfortunately, the Cubs were well aware of this deficiency when they signed him. Thinking his approach would somehow magically change doesn’t make any sense.
  • “Soriano can’t run the bases anymore.” Yes, his stolen-base attempts are down, but I don’t see any issues with him scoring from second on a single or taking the extra base. That of course assumes his legs are healthy, which has been a problem. A quick side note…Personally, I don’t mind an often-injured player cutting down on his steal attempts.
  • “Soriano doesn’t hustle.” Comments about a player’s willingness to “hustle” are always intriguing. When I hear someone make a comment like this, my reaction tends to be along these lines: “How do you really know? Do you watch every game? If so, do you always focus on how this player runs the bases or plays his defensive position? How do you know he isn’t playing through an injury?” Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen Soriano dog it on more than one occasion. But does that make him so different from almost every single player in baseball? The season is six months plus. Is it so vital that a hitter sprints to first on an easy groundout to 2B? Food for thought anyway.

Enough about the past. What does 2011 hold for Soriano? “The Bill James Handbook” made the following prediction:

  • 2011—134 games, .257/.317/.474, 24 home runs in 483 at bats

That’s certainly a realistic expectation, but I’m putting my money on a slightly better campaign. While I’m sure Soriano will miss 30+ games, I see a bounce back in batting average, something in the neighborhood of .275-.280. I also think he’s still capable of better power than a home run every 20 at bats.

The good news for Cubs fans is Mike Quade has OF depth this season. If Soriano is nursing a sore hamstring, he sits. If the Cubs are facing a tough righty, maybe he gets the day off in favor of Colvin or Fukudome. If Quade is smart, and I think he is, he’ll rotate his outfielders in a way that maximizes their strengths and limits their weaknesses.

Will Cubs fans look back one day and celebrate the signing of Alfonso Soriano? I seriously doubt it. I know that I won’t. However, he has shown flashes of greatness and may still have a big season left in him. After all, he’s not 38 just yet.

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