The ups and downs of Alfonso Soriano

Last week, Alfonso Soriano went back to where his career began. The Cubs traded him to the Yankees, reuniting the veteran slugger with his first major league team. It’s coming full circle for a player who isn’t at the end of his career but certainly much closer to it than the beginning.

And it’s been a rather unusual career, full of twists and turns and unlikely ups and downs. It’s nothing groundbreaking or historic, but it has been eventful as he’s gone from the Yankees to the Rangers to the Nationals to the Cubs and back to the Yankees. Now that the next chapter on his career is upon us, let’s look over the route that got him to where he is.

Going pro

Soriano’s first major league teams was the New York Yankees. Wait, check that. His first big league team in this hemisphere was the Yankees, but before that he actually played in Japan for a spell. There aren’t too many kids from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic who start off in Japan, but Soriano is one. Either he fell through the cracks of US scouting or the Hiroshima Carp had a really good scout, because while barely an adult, he played for Hiroshima in 1997.

Very quickly, Soriano wanted out. He couldn’t stand the rigorous Japanese practice schedule and hired the same agent who got Hideo Nomo to the Dodgers. Soriano was able to get out, but not before a big showdown between Nippon Pro Baseball and Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Out of this controversy, the two major leagues agreed to a posting system for compensation to Japanese teams for players lost to North America.

Soriano hadn’t even debuted yet, and already he had created a legacy.

The next big thing

When Soriano left Japan, he landed with the Yankees. After a little bit of time in the minors, he replaced Chuck Knoblauch as the team’s second baseman in 2001.

Soriano has been around so long now (and been past his prime for such a while now) that it’s easy to forget what an impact he made in his first few seasons. He had a nice, though raw, season in 2001, showing some power and speed while playing a defense-first position at second base.

Playing for a club that nearly won its fifth world championship in six seasons that year, Soriano looked like he might help the Yankees into a continued new golden era if he just developed a bit more. And develop more he did. It was 2002 that really established Soriano.

In just his second full season, he damn near made the 40/40 club, swatting 39 homers while stealing 41 bases. Until Soriano, all Yankee history had just one 30/30 season (by Bobby Bonds in 1975). And the homers and steals combo was just the most eye-catching thing Soriano did in 2002. He also belted 51 doubles, led the league in hits and runs, drove in over 100 runs, and hit .300.

Oh, and all this while playing a middle infield position. Soriano wasn’t the best glove at second, not by a long shot, but Jiminy Christmas, was he ever good. No wonder he finished third in the MVP voting.

If he could be this good that young, imagine how well Soriano would be when he hit the prime. He could be the next all-time great second baseman. As great as he was, he was still developing. After all, he was just 24 years old! Or so everyone thought at the time, but more on that later.

The bloom wears off

Given the sky-high expectations on Soriano, his 2003 season was a bit of a letdown. By any normal standards, it was a fine campaign—38 homers, a .290 average, 35 steals—but it wasn’t as eye-catching as the year before.

But the postseason was rough for him. Though he lit up the Twins in the ALDS, going 7-for-19 in four games against Minnesota pitching, the rest of the postseason was a burden. In 13 games of the ALCS and World Series, Soriano was 9-for-52 with 20 strikeouts. He whiffed 26 times that postseason, a new record for one year. Even with his nice ALDS, in 59 postseason games as a Yankee, Soriaon hit .233 with a tepid 622 OPS.

Sure it’s a small sample size, and no, it isn’t necessarily fair, but the bloom was off, and some talked that he couldn’t cut it in October. And if you couldn’t do that, what use did the Yankees have for you? It didn’t help that he arrived to the team right when championships left.

The Rangers years: bottoming out

Besides, the Yankees had other options. In the 2003-04 offseason, third baseman Aaron Boone went down with an injury, and the Yankees had an idea: why not land the biggest name out there, Alex Rodriguez. The Red Sox already had tried to land him, only to have a deal fall apart in negotiations, but the Yankees managed to make it work. And for Rodriguez and his massive contract, the Yankees sent Soriano.

Purely on baseball terms, the Yankees got the far better player in the exchange. A-Rod has won a pair of MVPs, been a perennial All-Star, and helped the Yankees win the 2009 World Series. But he’s also cost a ton more money that Soriano and still is due over $90 million more through 2017. Soriano is holding up better this year for sure, but that’s getting ahead of things.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Before Soriano ever took the field for Texas, he found himself in a new controversy. In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. government passed laws calling for tighter documentation of people entering America, and it affected baseball in the 2003-04 offseason, as many Caribbean players turned out to be older than previously claimed.

The most high-profile name to have his birthday change was Soriano. It turns out he’d been born in 1976, not 1978 as previously claimed. The Rangers said they knew and it was no big deal. But to the general public, it meant his upside might not be as huge as once hoped. That great campaign came at age 26, not 24, and maybe it was just an early peak.

Soriano was destined to play a key role in the history of the mid-2000s Rangers. The year before, they’d hired high-profile and well-regarded manager Buck Showalter. The 2003 campaign had been his first in Texas, and the team was being remade with Showalter’s input, including the A-Rod trade. Showalter would rise and fall with Soriano as a Ranger, and it turned out it was fall.

Showalter had definite ideas on how to use Soriano. He’d batted leadoff with the Yankees, but Showalter knew that was a waste of his big bat. As nice as his steals were, power was the heart of Soriano’s game, so Showalter would bat him third.

Soriano balked. He didn’t refuse, but he also didn’t want to do it. He felt more comfortable at the top of the order and didn’t like this change. But Showalter had made his decision. He didn’t want to bat in the middle? Okay, but he’d get used to it. Players always do. It’s the same person with the same talent, so batting order shouldn’t matter.

And 99 times out of 100, Showalter would be exactly right. But Soriano was the 100th time. In 2004-05, Soriano hit .274 overall with around 30 homers a year, a far cry from his previous near-40 seasonal pace. And his defense, never his strong point, kept getting worse.

Soon, he’d have to switch to the outfield, and the value of a 30-homer slugger in a corner outfield slot isn’t nearly as great as a second baseman conking 40 longballs per year. Soriano was beginning to look like a flash in the pan. It didn’t help that A-Rod won an MVP in the Bronx in 2005.

Texas thought so, and made the second Soriano-related trade that defined the Showalter era. They sent him to Washington for three players, the key one being outfielder Brad Wilkerson.

It was an amazing pair of Soriano-related trades that ruined the Rangers for a bit. Two trades turned Alex Rodriguez into Brad Wilkerson. Rodriguez, for all his controversy, was undeniably one of the best players in baseball. Wilkerson was one of the worst players in the game. The club thought he could provide a high on-base percentage while smacking 30 homers a year, but instead he hit .220 with middling power.

The incredible thing is that I still remember many people thinking the Rangers got the better of the trade at the time. Wilkerson was in ascendancy, and Soriano wasn’t, entering his 30s and looking like he’d peaked early.

Washington revival

Immediately upon his arrival in Washington, it looked like things were going to go even worse for Soriano. His new boss, manager Frank Robinson, decreed that Soriano had to change his position, shifting from second to left field. Initially, Soriano refused.

Uh-oh. Could this be the batting order battle all over again? He’d already bucked the odds there by proving to be unable to handle a shift, and now it looked like he’d do it again over position. Keep in mind, the first criticism made of Soriano was that he couldn’t produce in the big-pressure games of October. Maybe this really was a genuinely talented player who just couldn’t handle pressure.

Or not, because after a few days, Robinson got Soriano on board with the position change, and there was no more talk about that. Instead, he refocused on his game and had the best season of his life.

Four years after he first threatened to do so, Soriano made the 40/40 club with a personal best 46 homers alongside 41 steals. He also topped 40 doubles and, in a shocking development, nearly doubled his previous high in bases on balls, drawing 67. (Okay, so 16 were intentional. It still was far better than expected.) Soriano hadn’t just made the change to left, he’d thrived.

It came at the best possible time for him, too, for Soriano was about to hit the free agent market. And his monster 2006 season established him as the biggest bat available.

Chicago Cubs: Soriano falls and rises all over again

Soriano’s free agency came at a great time because not only did he just have a career year, but the Cubs had decided to go on a big spending spree. Cub owners the Chicago Tribune Company had decided, after a quarter-century of uninspired leadership, to sell the club. (The sale would take longer than anyone anticipated, but that’s another story.) Just as homeowners often will make repairs before selling their place, the Cubs decided to invest in their team by hauling in some high-profile players.

The Cubs often had signed free agents under the Tribune Company’s reign, but they almost always went for second-tier guys. They typically landed a bunch of B-level players on the verge of decline and then stayed in second division. Henry Rodriguez was their idea of a prominent outfielder signing.

But under this year’s unusual circumstances, they aimed at the biggest bat out there, and they landed him with a huge eight-year contract worth about $17 million per year. They clearly paid him more than he’d be worth, especially in the later years, but the hope was that the team would achieve enough in the short term to justify the deal.

Sure enough, the club did win back-to-back division titles in 2007 and ’08, but Chicago bombed in the playoffs both times, losing all six October games (with Soriano again not producing, managing just three singles in 28 at-bats).

In general, Soriano’s tenure with the Cubs was a disappointment. The hope was that he’d have a few years left in his prime, but that didn’t quite happen. He hit .299 with 33 homers in his first year in Chicago but never matched either total again.

Instead, injuries plagued Soriano, causing him to miss plenty of playing time—a third of 2008 and a quarter of 2009. Most notably, he developed some problems with his legs and with them went his speed. After his 40/40 campaign in 2006, he never stole 20 bases again. His 2006 spike in walks proved to be fleeting, too.

In 2009, just Year Three of the mega-deal, things seemed to completely bottom out for Soriano. In 117 games, he smacked 20 homers and stole nine bases while batting a career-worst .244. Never a Gold Glove winner, Soriano’s defense was often brutal, as he committed 11 errors. Folks, that’s one every 10 games, an amazingly bad rate for an outfielder. According to WAR, the $100-plus man was the worst left fielder in baseball.

Adding to these problems, the Cubs team that had gone to the postseason in 2007 and 2008 barely finished above .500 in 2009. They’d missed their window and now had five more years of this play from Soriano to look forward to.

Instead of becoming the biggest albatross in the game, however, Soriano improved. He finally agreed to take a lower slot in the batting order, and unlike his days in Texas, adjusted. While his batting average never came close to .300—.262 was as high as it got after 2008—he was at least drawing more walks than his Yankees/Rangers days.

While no longer a top slugger, he could be counted on to hit 25-30 homers. No one’s idea of an All-Star anymore, Soriano at least had become a decent player.

Soriano was never as bad as his injury-impaired 2009 season looked like anyway. He’d certainly never be worth the money, but instead of being an anchor, he was just another overpaid player. (Besides, by the end he was entering the years everyone expected him to be overpaid, anyway.)

In fact, his overall offensive performance with the Cubs was about the same as it was with the Yankees and Rangers. In the AL, Soriano posted an on-base percentage of .320 and a slugging percentage of an even .500. With the Cubs, those numbers were nearly identical: .317 and .495. Soriano homered 162 times in 802 games in those first two stops and went deep 181 times in 889 games in Chicago. He had a better batting average in the AL but drew more walks in the NL.

On the face of it, the numbers are very similar. True, but then if you have a second baseman and a left fielder with similar numbers, the second baseman is far more value. But it does show the worst-case scenario for Soriano never came to fruition thanks to his 2010s revival. Even on defense he improved, making a serious effort in his mid-30s to improve his game with the glove.

Actually, here’s an unlikely side note: though Soriano has always had problems on defense, there’s one thing he’s been great at, throwing out runners. Though he’s played fewer than 1,000 games in left, he’s tallied 92 outfield assists. He threw out 22 runners in his year in Washington and 19 more in his first year in Chicago.

I remember seeing him when he came to the Cubs, and he had a delivery unlike any other left fielder I’ve ever seen. He threw the ball side-armed like the former second baseman that he was throwing to first, except the ball would fly 300 feet.

How good are 92 assists from left? Since WWII, it ties him for 17th among all left fielders. The guys ahead of him have quite a bit more than Soriano’s 998 games in left. A dozen played in over 1,500 games, and 15 played in over 1,200. The only comparable is Bernard Gilkey with 102 assists in 996 games in left. On a per-game rate, Soriano tops all the others. Okay, side note over.

Aside from his on-field improvement, Soriano also became a team leader. As one of the elder statesmen on the Cubs, and by the end the man with the longest tenure on the team, Soriano had the best reputation in the clubhouse of anyone. From manager Dale Sveum to the youngest kid on the team, you cannot find anyone who has a bad word to say about Soriano, his attitude, or his approach to the game.

Speaking as one Cubs fan, if the team had gotten rid of him a few years ago, I’d have been ecstatic. Now it just seems like a trade that works for the Cubs.

New York return and onward

The trade works for New York, too. Soriano still has some pop in his bat, and the Yankees surely need that. Unlikely but true: New York ranks next-to-last in the AL in home runs. With 88 dingers, they’re behind the Twins and ahead of only the Royals. In fact, in the month of July, the Yankees have fewer homers than Soriano all by himself: seven to eight.

Soriano might have a few years left in him. He should top 400 homers, though he’ll never make it to 500. If the possible Hall of Fame career envisioned for him never panned out, neither did he become the cautionary tale of big contracts.

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Michael Caragliano
10 years ago

Soriano hit what might be the most forgotten clutch home run in Yankees history. He hit a shot in the top of the eighth of game seven in the 2001 World Series that gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead. If the Yankees bullpen had held it, Soriano could have put World Series hero on the resume, and I remember quite a few people at the time saying that home run sealed the deal on Soriano as a bona fide clutch post-season player.

10 years ago

+1 on the 2001 WS HR. That was huge – Schilling had pitched a heck of a game and then Soriano golfs one down about his ankles over the fence with Mo sitting in the pen to ice it. If Rivera doesn’t throw away that bunt, Soriano is as big a hero in NY as, well not Jeter, but maybe Reggie. . . .

Paul E
10 years ago

After that HR, Schilling slumped in the dugout like an 8 year old who’s dog just got kicked by some bully

10 years ago

He uses a huge bat. Many, including myself, have wondered if he would do better switching to a lighter bat.