Swallowing Alfonso Soriano’s Contract

The hurdles remain, but the enthusiasm is there: The Cubs will be listening to offers on Alfonso Soriano at these winter meetings. The veteran will have to approve any trade, and has blocked moves to the San Francisco Giants in the past because of the cold weather and the West Coast location, so that’s no small obstacle. There’s also the matter of the $36 million left on his contract — Chicago will certainly have to swallow some of that in order to get a palatable return in a trade. How much they swallow will mostly depend on the receiving team’s opinion of Soriano’s defense.

Soriano’s bat enjoyed a resurgence last season, too, but it wasn’t of the same magnitude as his defensive improvement. Outside of 2009, he’s actually been fairly steady with the Cubs. Discounting that season, where his offense was 17% worse than the league average, he’s been 14% better than league average, with a high of 22% and a low of 1%. Last year, that number was 16%. He’s rarely managed a passable walk rate, his strikeout rate is getting worse, his speed on the basepaths has dwindled, but his power remains. His isolated slugging percentage last year (.237) hit his career number on the head (.232), and given his last three years, it’s reasonable to once again pencil him in for a .200+ ISO.

That power alone, along with good health (Soriano has crossed the 500 PA threshhold every season with the Cubs) and scratch defense, should get the player to within a few runs of average production. Given his age (37 years old), the aging curve might be steep. A two-win season in 2013 is reasonable given all these caveats, but asking for much more than a win in 2014 might not be.

If you’re comfortable penciling Soriano in for three wins over the next two seasons, then you’d basically want the Cubs to swallow significantly more than half of the remaining contract. More than $20 million if they want a decent prospect. Paying $16 million for two years might make Soriano a slightly-more expensive alternative to Ryan Ludwick.

Soriano just finished a four-win season! Do we really need to be so pessimistic about his next two seasons?

Maybe. Last year was the first time in four years that Soriano offered positive value on defense. He managed what turned out to be almost a full-win swing between 2011 and 2012. Look at any of his defensive metrics, and even if there’s some disagreement about his full value, there’s agreement that he improved his range last season. At his age, any skepticism about a one-year change in a defensive stat is healthy skepticism. But there are some mitigating factors in this particular situation.

One is almost incomprehensible. From Bradley Woodrum’s Hardball Times Annual case study on Soriano comes the revelation that the player had never been coached on outfield defense before this year. Woodrum found the surprising quote:

“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. … Soriano said that the only “coaching” he got at that time and prior to this season was shagging fly balls during batting practice.” — Sahadev Sharma, ESPN Chicago

Makes you wonder about some teams. If there was a player that needed outfield coaching, ever, it was Soriano making the contentious move off of second base all those years ago.

That might not be the entire picture though. There’s some evidence that positioning played a part in Soriano’s new range numbers. From BIS, we learn that Soriano was a combined -35 Plus/Minus for deep balls in 2011. He moved that number to +1 in 2012. He went from +3 to -3 on shallow balls and -1 to -4 on medium balls, so he did make some trade offs. But obviously it was worth it overall.

Soriano also experienced an uptick on the basepaths. His speed score was back up to 3.4 from a career floor of 2.4 in 2011. BIS had him moving from -19 to -5 in Baserunning Gain, and our own baserunning stats support a modest improvement. Then again, it’s hard to depend on a player of his age retaining a late-career improvement in a part of the game so dependent on athleticism.

Let’s give him a positive defensive number and a chance at three wins in 2013. That would give him at least four wins over the life of the contract, and require the Cubs to swallow between ten to fifteen of the millions of dollars remaining on his contract. That would make Soriano a cheaper alternative to Torii Hunter, who just signed a two-year, $26 million contract.

His arm is still an asset, or scratch. Even with declining wheels, he’s not yet molasses on the basepaths. His plate discipline was never an asset. His bat has legs and he knows how to use em. Acquiring him now will have none of the sexiness of the mega-deal that brought him to Chicago, but it may still bring outfield help to a team like the Braves or Rays — warm, East Coast teams in need of some thump — and somewhere between ten and twenty million dollars of salary relief to the Cubs.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

27 Responses to “Swallowing Alfonso Soriano’s Contract”

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  1. Kinanik says:

    The new market inefficiency: making sure your players know how to play baseball.

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    • B N says:

      Haha, you say that but baseball is a very skilled sport. Some players just never seem to internalize things like positioning, reading the ball out of a pitcher’s hand, or what pitch to throw in what count. For a pitcher, you can at least let the catcher call your pitches. For a fielder… well, you’re just going to see a lot of adventurous routes trying to get to a ball in play.

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  2. CycloneColin says:

    He had a lot going for him which I hope they can sell high and take advantage. After this first month his knees looked shot but he kept playing and as stated the not so terrible base running speed was there.

    First switching to the slightly lighter bat and then finding out he was never “properly” coached on how to play the OF. Very circumstantial that in a way that does make a lot of sense.

    Anyway hes won over a lot of Chicago cub fans after just last season. I know many message boarders don’t even want to trade him but he should go personally I don’t see him doing this again.

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    • Atari says:

      The Chicago Cubs were a 61 win team in 2012. Alfonso Soriano will be a 37 year old LF on opening day 2013 and making 36 million dollars over the next 2 years. Soriano is still a good player but he is worth more to marginal playoff team.

      For a team like the Braves it may mean the difference between winning the division and having to play another wild-card play-in game, or between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs. For the Cubs next year, realistically, does it matter if they win 63, or 66 or 67 games? Think about how much work it is gonna take to leapfrog the Cards, Reds, Brewers and even Pirates the next couple years. With Houston gone the division is even tougher for the forseeable future.

      Even if the Cubs have to eat a good portion of the contract, if the Cubs can flip Soriano for a helpful contract, save themselves 10 to 15 million dollars, then in 2015 or so that money could be the difference in being able to make a few key mid-season rentals or a nice mid-rotation upgrade. For the Cubs, it makes sense to trade away Soriano and get a nice package now and invest in the future of the organization.

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  3. Paul Clarke says:

    You left the most interesting question unanswered: if your bat has legs, how do you use ‘em?

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  4. Tim says:

    Unless the Cubs plan to reinvest the salary savings on a younger free that fits their longer term plan, or they get a significant return by eating virtually ALL his salary, as a fan, I would rather keep Soriano. Here’s my reasoning:

    – The Cubs are short on major league ready outfielders so it’s not like Soriano is stealing time from a prospect that needs major league ABs.

    – The Cubs don’t exactly need salary relief. Even with Soriano’s contract on the books, the Cubs current payroll (including FA signings thus far) is ~$61M , well below the team average and well below the salary profile for a major market team. For some perspective, the Cubs payroll in 2010 was ~$145M.(http://www.baseballprospectus.com/compensation/index.php?team=CHN&cyear=2013)

    -Even if the Cubs had an extra $5-$10M to re-invest over the next few years, what would they do with it? It’s not like the Cubs aren’t signing big name free agents because they don’t have salary flexibility (see above) so the team will just be that much harder to watch.

    – According to numerous reports, Soriano sets a good example to the younger players on the team and provides some protection / production in the middle of the lineup. On such a young team, it can’t hurt to have at least 1 veteran out there that knows what it means to play in the majors and be a part of a winner.

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    • jmoultz says:

      All good points, Tim. However I would argue there is some urgency here as Soriano is unlikely to come anywhere close last year’s production for the rest of his career so his trade value will never be higher. The timing converges with what’s left on his contract finally palatable assuming the Cubs eat some, if not most. It sounds as if there are a few teams out there who might be willing to risk rolling the dice that he can approach his 2012 value.

      His contract is a sunk cost at this point and in weighing how much to eat it seems like a fairly simple formula to me: Cubs trade Soriano, eat X of his remaining salary and pick up Y player (or more likely, prospect(s)). If the Cub’s FO thinks Y player’s production could exceed the X dollars eaten on Soriano’s contract, the trade is potentially a big win with little downside.

      Naturally they’ll be looking for player(s) that might be around for the next run but, more importantly, have several years of cost-controlled rights remaining. We know that Soriano is owed $36M through 2014 so the math is pretty simple. A Win is worth about $6-7M in today’s market so if we’re conservative and use $6M per Win, the Cubs only need to deal for a player(s) who will exceed 4-5 Wins over the life of how long they remain inexpensive for the Cubs (pre-arb) to retain.

      If you’ll forgive the gross overgeneralization and grant me that a typical 2 WAR player is commonly a very good reliever, #4-5 SP, decent MI/CF or quality corner guy, the bar is pretty low for getting a return on Soriano. Finding a potential 2 WAR guy who’s cheap for 3+ years seems in exchange for eating $24-$28M of Soriano’s contract doesn’t seem too daunting.

      It’s also worth noting that Soriano will be blocking other OF prospects and possibly by the end of this season. The Cubs will likely want to take a look at one or several of Sappelt, Szczur, Jackson, Lake, Ha, Watkins, Soler or Burgess. Unless you’re in the camp that the Cubs have an outside shot of contending in 2013 I just don’t see the upside in keeping Soriano.

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    • Baltar says:

      Nothing like veteran presence.

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  5. LeviDavis says:

    “Makes you wonder about some teams. If there was a player that needed outfield coaching, ever, it was Soriano making the contentious move off of second base all those years ago.”

    Actually, this makes me question Soriano’s honesty.

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  6. kjheise says:

    Won’t play in San Francisco because it’s cold? As if it’s a balmy 85F in Chicago during a September night game…

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    • Pirates Hurdles says:

      Yeah but it sure ain’t a chilly 58 in July in Chicago. The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in SF – Twain attributed.

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      • Atari says:

        So true. It can be mid-summer and if you stand in the shade, the wind chill will make it feel like winter. It pierces to the bone.

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  7. Bill says:

    he’ll never play the OF on the turf at tropicana field, never. If the cubs eat enough salary to make it $6-8mil a year in salary I could see the rays taking him on as a DH, there are worse ideas. They are not getting hellickson back though, or Cobb. It’d be worth a talk.

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    • jmoultz says:

      No, probably no shot at Cobb or Hellickson, but perhaps Blake Snell, or Alex Colome, or Ryan Brett, or Enny Romero, or Felipe Rivero…there’s a lot of flyers the Cubs could take on guys in that system.

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  8. Vernon Wells says:

    Hey, I know a sucker who might take on that contract…oh wait, never mind. He got fired for some reason.

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  9. Jon L. says:

    I’m not sure we needed 1999 & 2000 in the graph. 1999 threw me in particular, until I looked it up – I had no memory of him slugging that year.

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  10. skmd says:

    as a Cub fan, it’s nice to read articles and comments on Soriano that go beyond the tired old assumptions you keep reading elsewhere, made by people who haven’t even seen him play since 2009 – his defense is awful, his knees are shot, he can’t run, he can’t hit, the Cubs would have to eat his whole contract just to get back a bucket of balls.

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  11. byosti says:

    where was the BIS info on positioning found at?

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  12. The Rajah says:

    Soriano makes sense for Atlanta if the Cubs would eat about $22M. Otherwise, the Braves don’t have the cash to make it happen.

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  13. While credit is not often given to the manager, I think the shifts and positioning of Dale Sveum have a lot to do with not only Soriano’s improvement, but the others as well.

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  14. Defensive improvement, that is.

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  15. ScottA says:

    Is he healthier? I saw very few games last year, I was on the road far too often, but he sure looked limited in 2009 and 2010 and really appeared to be laboring. I respected him for getting out there everyday and read that his teammates appreciated it as well. He seemed to move better in 2011 and again last year and my thinking is that he is healthier, but that good coaching plus better mobility is what led to these improved results. I find the coaching comment plausible, simply because Dusty and Pinella ran old school teams with a hands off style and because the Cubs were bottom of the league on baserunning, fielding, etc. I tried to look at some other long established patterns that might have been influenced by better coaching. Such as pitch selection.

    I was always impressed by how often he swung on pitches that everyone in the country, except him, knew were coming. I would often wonder why coaches couldn’t get him to take those unhittable pitches he flailed away at. On many summer afternoons, Brenly, Santo and others would say that if the pitcher would throw an 0-2 slider, he would get Soriano swinging and then Cubs fans would wait for him to swing for the left field bleachers on EVERY 0-2 slider in the dirt. This pattern seemed to occur less often in the few games I saw last year, but I’d be curious to know if 0-2 strikeouts on out of zone pitches went down as well.

    His O-swing% was the best it had been in a few years, although not as low as it was while really puting up big numbers as a Ranger. He hit the FB better and the slider did not kill him (-1.6 runs) the way it did in 2011 (-16). Other pitch slection metrics were marginally improved to unchanged. Does anyone know of metrics to evaluate coaching other than run margin compared to won/loss or other general markers? If there is way to keep him from swinging at 0-2 sliders, I could save a lot of money in repair of broken items, bar tabs, psychiatrist bills, etc

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  16. Joebrady says:

    1-Defensive metrics are mostly useless over the short term. Ellebury did not go from a great fielder, to a horrible fielder, to a great fielder (21.2, -9.7, 15.6). Crisp is also all over the map. Carlos Lee is all over the map. Guys will always be a little better or a little worse, but fielding is pretty consistent.

    IRT teaching Soriano how to field, I remember the patch of dirt at Shea named Strawberry Fields, worn out because Strawberry always, always stayed in the identical spot. Dead-pull righties, dead-pull lefties, SS’s with more bunt singles than doubles, all played identically. When his OF coach, Bill Robinson, who couldn’t understand why he didn’t get a manager’s job, was asked about it, he said he didn’t coach the OFs because they knew how to play the OF.

    Now why wouldn’t anyone want to hire someone like that to be their manager?

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  17. BillyF says:

    Soriano was not healthier. The numbers were one small sample size. (Where’s the 3-year trend-analysis that we need?) Cubs fan watched his game, saw how ol-Fonzi walked in pain on the basepath, esp. earlier the season. Other days, I guess the pills or injection worked. Cross your thumb that he can rely on his wheels for next season.

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