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Alfonso Soriano’s Platoon Value

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over a mess of a roster, one good enough not to completely embarrass, but bad enough to show no signs of improving. Thus, their seeming first order of business is to rebuild. The term rebuilding is consistently misapplied, as the common perception is that teams in such situations must deal away all valuable pieces at once in order to stockpile prospects. While shedding payroll and converting costly players that don’t truly benefit the team right now into stars of the future is certainly a part of rebuilding, it isn’t everything. Another frequent tactic is creating the perception of starting anew by unloading costly players signed by the previous regime.

The Cubs are certainly implementing the latter tactic by attempting to move Alfonso Soriano. According to Bruce Levine of ESPN Chicago, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts is willing to eat most of the remaining $54 million on Soriano’s contract to facilitate a move. The writing is on the wall: Soriano’s days in a Cubs uniform are numbered, and it’s simply a matter of time before numerous teams come calling for an inexpensive outfielder with a decent bat and underrated fielding skills they can deploy in a left field platoon.

At $18 million per season, and in a full-time starting role, Soriano has negative value — his salary outweighs what his production typically costs on the market. But at $2-3 million per year, and in a role that limits his playing time, keeps him healthy, and allows him to face predominantly lefties, a league average year isn’t out of the cards. Though Soriano is a sunk cost, it makes more sense for a rebuilding team to eke out some prospects, after selling suitors on these factors, than to keep him around and platoon him themselves.

Soriano is 36 years old, and is coming off of a statistical down year. However, at that age, it’s entirely possible that a .325 wOBA is his talent level moving forward. Sure, he posted a .353 wOBA in 2010, and surpassed the .370 mark in 2008, but he walked much more. Never patient at the plate, Soriano managed walk rates north of eight percent in those seasons, compared to his meager 5.3 percent rate last season. With BABIPs below .300 in each of the last three seasons, a dip in walk rate inevitably leads to low on-base percentages. Despite a .244/.289/.469 line in over 500 plate appearances, Soriano performed better against lefties.

Against oppo-handed hurlers, he managed a .271/.312/.500 line, and hit a homer every 17 at-bats (he hit one every 39 ABs against righties). Compared to himself, the numbers are certainly improved. Compared to the league split, it wasn’t as impressive, as players tend to perform better in their favorable platoon situation.

Cumulatively, however, from 2008-11, Soriano has a .350 OBP, .533 SLG, .252 ISO and .372 wOBA against lefties, which ranked 18th out of the 51 NL players with 500+ PAs against lefties in that split-span. He also managed a 9.5 percent walk rate, which isn’t gaudy by any means, but is certainly respectable.

Teams can’t simply expect the same split-production to occur moving forward, as the lack of consistent playing time could hamper Soriano’s production, but the odds are that he would relatively thrive in a platoon role somewhere. He could tally 330 PAs and hit .275/.340/.520. Add that to a positive UZR mark and he would carry value above the remaining portion of his salary not picked up by Ricketts and the Cubs.

While Soriano plays an awkward left field with what looks like a lack of coordination, he rates very favorably. UZR isn’t the gospel, but when a guy posts 2007-11 marks of +33, +16, -3, +5, +3, it seems safe to say he can field. Since switching to left field in 2006, Soriano has a cumulative +60 UZR, one-third of watch is attributable to his ARM rating. Since 2006, only Chase Utley‘s +68 and Adrian Beltre‘s +65 outpace Soriano, and his arm only paled in comparison to Jeff Francouer and Jayson Werth.

The range leaderboard for qualifying players in that span is equally amusing, as Soriano, at +49, ranks second to Carl Crawford‘s +60, but the next closest competitor is Matt Holliday at +18.

If Soriano was on the free agent market right now, a number of teams would seek his services. He can hit lefties and field well, and that is usually enough for a team to have interest in a one- or two-year deal at $2-3 million per season. By moving Soriano at this juncture, the Cubs would create the perception of starting from scratch — Aramis Ramirez signed with the Brewers and Carlos Zambrano was traded to the Marlins — and Soriano would play in his most productive role elsewhere. That is, of course, unless the interested Orioles try to use his “name value” to “put butts in seats” and any other tired cliche by playing him every day. Fortunately for all parties involved, Soriano will likely only waive his no-trade clause if dealt to a contender.