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Cubs Fri Jul 26 2013

Alfonso Soriano: A Synopsis as a Cub

Cubs_200.pngIn the winter of 2006, former general manger Jim Hendry set out to fill what he, along with many in the industry, considered to be the missing piece for the Cubs to reach the playoffs and beyond. His goal: sign a leadoff hitter -- regardless of price. On November 21st, he inked the most expensive contract for a top of the order bat in the history of baseball. Soon to be 31-year-old Alfonso Soriano was coming to the Cubs for a cool $136 million over eight years.

Soriano had just completed his best season as a major leaguer, becoming just the fourth player in the history of baseball to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in the same year (ironically, he'll be teaming up with another in Alex Rodriguez -- a player he was also traded for in his career). In his six full seasons, he had never played less than 145 games. The expectations that came along with the $136 million were astronomical. And that's where the problems started.

The mid-2000s was a time of transition in Major League Baseball. Getting on base and drawing walks, especially at the top of the lineup, was quickly becoming a talking point for anyone familiar with Michael Lewis's bestseller "Moneyball". Soriano didn't draw many walks and the organization had to continuously beat back the idea of moving him down in the order. Hendry paid for his stolen bases too, not just his homers. It wasn't until July 4th of 2009 that Soriano was freed from the leadoff spot.

His first season in Chicago was fantastic from a hitting perspective. The triple slash line of .299/.337/.560 with 42 homers and 19 steals was good enough for 12th in the MVP voting. But two problems started creeping up in the summer of 2007. Soriano only managed to play in just 135 games, the fewest of his career to that point, and he started hearing it from the fans in left field for his poor defense along with annoying bunny hop he did when making catches in the outfield. It infuriated people.

Soriano played second base during his first five major league seasons, but was so brutal at the position that the Nationals moved him out to left field in an effort to minimize his defensive ineptness. He had never played there before in his life, but Cubs fans didn't care. He was being paid a ton of money; errors and silly mistakes were unacceptable.

Worse yet, he continued to have problems staying on the field. In 2008, despite good hitting numbers when he played (.280, 29 homers, 19 steals), leg injuries started to rob him of more and more games -- not to mention his speed. He suited up for only 109 contests that season, and didn't break double digits in steals again during a single season until just a few weeks ago.

He seemingly swung and missed at every breaking ball in the dirt too, and Cubs fans were fed up. The injuries, the lack of power, not getting on base, sub-par defense, and the strikeouts all weighed on him. He was booed frequently at Wrigley Field, and that's tough to hear from a home crowd.

When Theo Epstein was hired in the winter of 2011, he began to write a new culture for the Cubs organization. The future he had everyone envisioning was one that clearly didn't involve Soriano. From the moment Epstein signed, the Soriano trade watch began, and might've ended a year earlier if not for the no-trade clause Hendry threw in to sweeten the original contract -- something that Epstein doesn't believe in.

Soriano wasn't being dealt because people in the organization didn't like him though. In fact, he's considered one of the best teammates and people in all of baseball. That sentiment is pretty clear from the reactions of the front office, manager, and his teammates upon the news of him being traded back to where his Major League career began.

With the spotlight shined on the Cubs future under the new regime, Soriano went out and quietly put together a great season in 2012, and was doing the same so far this year. Being traded for a pitcher in low-A and getting the Yankees to pay roughly $7 million of the $24.5 million remaining on his contract isn't because the Cubs didn't want him anymore. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer wanted to give Soriano another shot at a title before his career is over. They also wanted the roster spot to see if younger players like Junior Lake could hack it in the majors with proper playing time.

With Soriano's departure, the book has also officially closed on the Hendry years. If you ask the average Cubs fan, they'll say that Soriano didn't deliver on that monster deal he signed in 2006. But the reality is that he did. According to Fangraphs, Soriano's Wins Above Replacement (WAR) during his time in Chicago was 18.9. At the going rate of wins being worth roughly $5.5 million, Soriano provided nearly $104 million in value during his Cubs career. To date, he's been paid roughly $111.5 million. It doesn't get much closer than that for nine-figure contracts.

Soriano improved his outfield defense every season as well. He ditched the bunny hop after errors, injury and fan rage, hit homers like he was supposed to, and ran when his legs allowed. And there wasn't anything more fun than to watch him peg runners at second, third, and home with his trademark tailing throws from deep in left field. He lived up to the money he was paid, and did it while being berated by fans and media members. When the heat wasn't on him in the last couple years, he even developed a good relationship with his former detractors in left field -- maybe because they knew his days were numbered. He was the consummate professional: He worked hard, was a fantastic teammate, and always answered the questions he was asked.

Instead of remembering him for not living up to unrealistic expectations, let's remember him for what he was: worth the money.

 
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