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Swallowing Alfonso Soriano’s Contract

Posted By Eno Sarris On December 3, 2012 @ 1:00 pm In Daily Graphings | 27 Comments

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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