Alfonso Soriano: A Chance for Something

It was on Feb. 16, 2004, that the Yankees thought they had their questions answered. That day, they added a 28-year-old Alex Rodriguez from the Rangers — along with cash — and what it cost them was Alfonso Soriano and, eventually, Joaquin Arias. It was a deal thought to be lopsided at the time, and Rodriguez, for awhile, performed like a superstar. Rodriguez today resembles Rodriguez then, but only really in terms of genetics; there’s some chance he might never play another game. Which is one reason why the Yankees are rumored to be pursuing Soriano, who now is in Chicago. Rodriguez’s arrival was directly connected to Soriano’s departure. Rodriguez’s potential departure might be directly connected to Soriano’s potential arrival.

Here’s another reason why the Yankees are looking at the ex-Yankee. Soriano bats right-handed, and for a while, he’s produced. Right-handed batters for the Yankees, this season, have racked up more strikeouts than hits. Granted, it turns out that’s hardly unprecedented, so it’s not as impactful as it sounds. But Yankee righties have a .589 OPS. Next-worse is the Marlins, at .622. Yankee righties play in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees are thirsty for a right-handed bat that doesn’t suck, and it just so happens that Soriano’s an outfielder, like Vernon Wells.

First point: Right now, there isn’t a trade. There were reports that a trade was close, but reports since have backed off and say  the Yankees and the Cubs are just talking. With that said, they’re also said to be “motivated,” and the Yankees are a fit with a need. The team also is familiar to a player with a no-trade clause. Odds are, Soriano will be moved; odds are, if he’s moved, it’ll be to the Yankees.

Second point: At the moment, the Yankees don’t have a healthy Curtis Granderson, but he’s supposedly due back in just a short while. A healthy Granderson is someone you play every day. So is a healthy Brett Gardner. Ichiro remains useful as a regular. Ideally, the outfield hole that exists wouldn’t exist much longer, no matter what. So a new outfielder might not play much outfield down the stretch.

It was weird when the Yankees traded for Wells. It read like panic. Wells hadn’t been good and the deal cost the Yankees money that should’ve gone to Russell Martin. The plan was for Wells to be a stopgap until Granderson got himself healthy. Wells is coming up on 350 plate appearances, and he’s been a disaster since his hot start. If the Yankees acquired Soriano, in a sense it would be to replace their replacement. It would come months late, but Soriano would vault in front of Wells on the team depth chart and would relegate Wells to the bench. That — at most — is where he belongs.

Soriano’s under contract for $18 million in 2013 and another $18 million in 2014. The Cubs have been trying to move him seemingly forever, and any trade would involve the team eating a lot of cash. The Yankees being the Yankees, the likelihood is the Cubs would have to make a big contribution to the 2014 salary, while the Yankees would pick up most or all that remains in 2013. That way, the Yankees might be able to stay under a $189 million payroll next season, which has long been a goal. Soriano could start for the Yankees in 2014, depending on what they do. And to get Soriano and the cash, the Yankees would have to surrender a non-elite prospect of some kind of note.

Offensively, things have been catastrophic for New York, and Soriano can’t change all that on his own. But Granderson shouldn’t be far off. Derek Jeter shouldn’t be far off — again. And look at this list of potentially available bats. Hanley Ramirez isn’t actually available, Chase Utley doesn’t make sense for a team with Robinson Cano, Marlon Byrd is Marlon Byrd and the White Sox supposedly don’t want to pick up Alex Rios‘ 2014 salary. Given the Yankees’ needs and flexibility, Soriano is among the best of limited options. And the team is still within striking distance of the wild card, and with reinforcements on the way, it wouldn’t play well for the Yankees to sit still and do nothing. Soriano’s addition wouldn’t be a sexy transaction, but he’s a guy the Yankees could add at a reasonably low price.

This is the part where we get to Alfonso Soriano performance evaluation. The man is 37 years old, and he’s not going to slug .560 like he did in his peak. He’s not going to steal 30 or 40 bases like he did in his peak. There’s a reason the Cubs are willing to eat so much money to make Soriano go away. But, at least, if he’s on the decline, so far it’s been gradual. Soriano has posted an isolated slugging of at least .200 in all but one season since 2002. He’s posted a wRC+ of at least 100 every year but one since 2005. His walk rate hasn’t really budged, but his strikeout rate hasn’t really budged, either. In other words, his approach is still classically his.

During the PITCHf/x era, Soriano has posted one of baseball’s highest swing rates, and one of the highest rates of swings at balls. This is why he doesn’t walk; this is why he strikes out. But Soriano’s made a career out of this approach. Since 2008 — of the players with at least 1,000 plate appearances — 14 guys have put up O-Swing rates, Z-Swing rates and contact rates within five percentage points of Soriano’s. As a group, including Soriano, they’ve averaged a 95 wRC+. But we find Soriano at 106, and he looks remarkably similar to Adam Jones. They’re not dissimilar offensive players, with the younger Jones making a little more contact and running a little better.

So we know Soriano can hit at least a little, making up for his lackluster discipline with dingers. We know he’s not a base-running liability. The question that remains is what to make of his defense, and that’s where this can get really confusing. Cubs fans haven’t liked him. DRS has painted the picture of Soriano as being somewhere in the vicinity of average, or slightly below. UZR has loved Soriano. Loved him to bits. Soriano’s been a regular outfielder since 2006, spanning more than 8,500 innings. According to DRS, he’s been six runs below average. According to UZR, he’s been 78 runs above average. That makes a whale of a difference when it comes to determining Soriano’s value. While you could argue UZR wouldn’t be wrong over so many innings, you could say the same of DRS. This right here is one of the reasons why people get so frustrated with attempts at measuring defensive performance.

I think we can simplify this: First, Soriano is 37, so we can make a certain assumption about his range. It ued to be he had a great arm, and today it’s probably good but worse. If one system thinks he’s adequate and the other system thinks he’s great, he’s probably been somewhere between. I know that’s a big range, but still. Also, there’s this bizarre twist. From a September 2012 article:

His improvements defensively have also contributed in making this one of Soriano’s better all-around seasons with the Cubs. Soriano admitted that this year was the first time he’s ever gotten instruction on how to play the outfield. First base coach Dave McKay routinely coaches all the outfielders on how to play defense.

That revelation is all the more surprising considering that Soriano moved from second base to left field in spring training of 2006, his only season with the Washington Nationals. Soriano said that the only ‘coaching’ he got at that time and prior to this season was shagging fly balls during batting practice.

A different article from the same month:

Soriano’s not going to win a Gold Glove this year (or likely any other year at this point in his career), but opponents and scouts have done double takes all season at the transformation Soriano has undergone at age 36 under the tutelage of first-year outfield coach Dave McKay.

“He’s a different player out there than I saw the last two or three years,’’ said one evaluator, who views Soriano as a credible defender for the first time in his career.

It’s unlikely Soriano received no instruction, but it’s believable he didn’t receive enough, so it’s believable he might’ve improved at an unusually advanced age. I think this image might capture Alfonso Soriano’s defense in a nutshell:


Soriano might not look great in the field, but most of the time he gets the job done. He’s probably not a liability, even if he used to be. Reputations are hard to change when they’re established, but it wasn’t until a year and a half ago that someone tried to walk Soriano through what he was supposed to be doing.

Put  together, in Soriano, you get a pretty good hitter who’s a decent defender. Obviously, he’s not someone worth $18 million a season, but that isn’t the price the Yankees would be paying. To whatever extent it matters for the Yankees to add power, Soriano would supply some, and he’d be helping plug up what’s been a black hole occupied by Vernon Wells and others. In the immediate, Soriano could be an improvement in left. Upon the return of Granderson, Soriano’s right-handedness would be useful given the left-handed Granderson, Gardner, Ichiro and Travis Hafner. And as far as 2014 is concerned, Soriano could be a starter on Chicago’s dime. The Yankees already have Wells for next year on the Angels’ dime, but Wells is bad, and Soriano isn’t. Soriano’s a low-walk outfielder who actually hits for power.

Alfonso Soriano can’t save these Yankees. That needs to be a team effort, and Soriano is far from being an elite-level talent. But given the Yankees’ situation, given their needs and given their constraints, Soriano might be just about the best they can do. That wasn’t the case at the time when they traded for Vernon Wells, and better to learn pretty late than never to learn at all.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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