When the Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year, $136 million contract in November 2006, they were in desperate straits. They had just finished an embarrassing 66-96 season that cost manager Dusty Baker and team president Andy MacPhail their jobs. Empty seats all over Wrigley Field were the norm late that season.
New team president John McDonough stated his goal for the Cubs to win the World Series, and he enabled GM Jim Hendry to go on an unprecedented spending spree for the Cubs.
The Soriano signing was shocking. Only once before had the Cubs attempted something so bold. In the fall of 2000, MacPhail offered pitcher Mike Hampton more than $100 million to sign with the Cubs (Hampton chose the Rockies and the Denver school system).
In November 2006, the Cubs and the parent Tribune Co. were looking to win quickly, raise the team’s sale value, get out in a blaze of glory and let the new owners worry about the bills later. (The announcement that the Cubs were up for sale came on Opening Day 2007.) None of it came to be except that part about letting the new owners worry about the bills.
Hendry was ready to give Soriano six years, but his bosses, feeling generous, added two years on to the deal.
The GM sold Soriano as a 40-40 threat and a guy who could carry the offense for long stretches.
"He's lean,” Hendry said at the time. “He's like a greyhound, this guy. He's some kind of an athlete, and that's a very, very young body for his age. Who knows if somebody is going to be as productive at 38 as they are at 30 or 31? But, like I said, there's a lot of guys in this game right now swinging the bat at a very high level in their late 30s or even early 40s."
Soriano carried the Cubs in stretches during their NL Central title runs in 2007 and 2008. Here is a look:
.336/.379/.697 with 11 homers and 18 RBI
.320/.354/.754 with 14 homers and 27 RBI
.345/.386/.672 with 10 homers and 29 RBI.
That’s about it. In April of 2009, he had a line of .284/.364/.591 with 7 homers and 14 RBI.
This year, at no time did Soriano come close to carrying the Cubs. In fact, his last good month came in May. The key question coming into this season was whether Soriano could rebound after having knee surgery last fall. Here is a look month by month:
.292/.358/.542 with 3 homers and 11 RBI
.308/.376/.626 with 6 homers and 16 RBI
.234/.310/.468 with 4 homers and 11 RBI
.225/.271/.450 with 5 homers and 17 RBI
.245/.273/.457 with 3 homers and 14 RBI
.211/.300/.408 with 3 homers and 9 RBI
October (11 at-bats)
.455/.571/.545 with no homers and 1 RBI
Soriano didn’t endear himself to many fans when he said it was hard to play well on a poor team. He managed to find some satisfaction in not landing on the DL for the first time since 2006. This year, Soriano played in 147 games, his most since playing in 159 in ’06 for Washington. His season line was .258/.322/.496 with 24 homers and 79 RBI.
Soriano no longer runs _ he stole five bases this year _ and his defense is not good. It used to be fun watching him throw out runners with that banana-bend toss he used to uncork, but that’s a thing of the past, too.
The good news for the Cubs is that Soriano’s contract is half over. He's also never been a bad presence in the clubhouse, and he works hard every day. The bad news is that Soriano’s contract is half over, with four years yet to run. On top of it, Soriano turns 35 in January, and he has a full no-trade clause in his contract.
About the only thing the Cubs can do now is what manager Mike Quade did after he took over from Lou Piniella in late August: drop Soriano down to seventh in the order on certain days and start resting him more, giving up two days off a week.
The Tribune Co. is long gone from Cubdom, but I’m sure Tom Ricketts won’t forget them every time payday rolls around.