Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Soriano Says Good-bye

Soriano had a stellar 16-year career (Rumors and Rants)
As of yesterday, Alfonso Soriano is officially all done with baseball.

The end came quickly for Soriano, as it often does for whiffing machines in their late 30s. After exceeding 30 home runs and 100 RBI in both 2012 and 2013, Soriano fell apart at age 38 in 2014. Soriano batted a meager .221/.244/.367 with six home runs and 23 RBI in 67 games, snapping his streak of 13 consecutive seasons with at least 18 home run and earning a DFA from the Yankees in early July, followed by an outright release. New York cut him loose little more than a year after trading for him to ail their sinking offense, which he did with 17 homers and 50 RBI in just 58 games.

It was a grand return for Soriano, who began his professional career with the Yankees when they purchased him from Japan in 1998. One year later he made his debut, though his role was limited to a cameo on the championship teams of 1999 and 2000. In 2001 he inherited the everyday second baseman's job from the error-prone Chuck Knoblauch, only to become an error-prone second baseman himself. But like Knoblauch, Soriano could hit, and that more than compensated for his adventures in the field.

Following a third place-finish in the AL Rookie of the Year race in 2001, Soriano emerged as a star in 2002, earning his first All-Star nod, Silver Slugger award, and finishing third in the MVP race behind a pair of slugging shortstops: Miguel Tejada and Alex Rodriguez. Batting leadoff in Joe Torre's lineup ahead of Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, and Hideki Matsui, Soriano led the major leagues with 128 runs, 209 hits, and stole a league-high 41 bases. With 39 home runs he narrowly missed a 40/40 campaign, especially since he hit his 39th with two weeks left in the season. He also batted an even .300 with 51 doubles and 381 total bases, making his 2002 one of the finest offensive seasons ever by a second baseman.

His 2003 was nearly as good (more valuable according to bWAR, actually), as he was again an All-Star, scored well over 100 runs (114), and went 30/30 with 38 bombs and 35 thefts (caught just eight times). He also piled up 358 total bases and knocked in 91 runs while cutting down on his strikeouts and improving his walk rate. Soriano seemed destined to wind up as one of the all-time great Yankee second basemen, in the same league as Joe Gordon and Willie Randolph.

Only fate intervened. Aaron Boone shredded his knee playing pickup basketball, leaving New York in need of a third baseman. Brian Cashman asked if Alex Rodriguez, who was nearly traded earlier in the 2003-2004 offseason to Boston, was still for sale. He was, and became a Yankee after New York sent Soriano and a player to be named later (Joaquin Arias) to Texas for A-Rod and cash.

Soriano played for four teams but started and ended his career in pinstripes (SBNation)
Soriano continued to produce big numbers for two years in the Texas heat before he was traded to the Washington Nationals, where he enjoyed the finest season of his career in 2006. Moved to left field, he responded with just the fourth 40/40 season in baseball history, joining Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez. He also posted a career high .911 OPS en route to 6.1 bWAR and a sixth place finish in the NL MVP race.

That monster season, which included 362 total bases, couldn't have come at a better time for Soriano, who was in his walk year. He capitalized by signing an outlandish eight-year, $136 million contract with the Chicago Cubs which was doomed from the start, as he was about to begin his age 31 season when the ink dried.

Sure enough, Soriano's numbers slid as he aged and struggled with injuries, as he missed significant time in 2007, 2008, and 2009. The speed that helped him steal 30 or more bags five times from 2001 through 2006 dried up overnight, limiting him to single digit stolen base totals (outside of his aberrant 18 steal campaign in 2013) after 2008. His outfield defense, solid at first, grew to be truly abhorrent as his range diminished.

The Cubs' fortunes followed Soriano's, as they fell from playoff contender to one of the worst teams in baseball. It was fitting that they were stuck with a .250 hitter who rarely walked, struck out a ton, and couldn't run or field--a daily reminder of their massive misfire. Soriano would accrue 7.9 bWAR across his eight-year contract, worth not even one win per year despite being one of his league's 10 most expensive players from 2009 through 2013. His contract and underwhelming performance was a significant reason, but hardly the only one (see Edwin Jackson signing), for Chicago's rapid descent into irrelevance.

Soriano's age, declining skills and hefty salaries made his contract appear unmovable. Enter the Yankees, who are always willing to play past-their-prime players big bucks to fill out their roster. In desperate need of a power bat to complement Robinson Cano, the great heir to Soriano's second base job, New York sought out Soriano. That's he ended up back in pinstripes for the final act of his career, which included its last hot streak (second half of 2013) and last gasp (2014).

With 27.2 career bWAR, Soriano's not a Hall of Famer, but he's certainly a Hall of Gooder. His 412 home runs are 50th-most all-time, fueled by seven 30-homer seasons. The seven-time All-Star stole nearly 300 bases (289), notched over 2,000 hits (2,095), and eclipsed both 1,000 runs (1,152) and 1,000 RBI (1,159). His combination of power, speed, and low on-base percentages make him something of a modern Andre Dawson.

During the meat of his career from 2001 and 2013, he ranked second in doubles (to Albert Pujols), fifth in long balls, eighth in hits, 10th in runs and stolen bases, and 12th in RBI. It's easy to forget now just how exceptional he was during his prime 10 years ago, and how even in his later years he remained surprisingly durable and a steady source of power. He only had a handful of truly great seasons, but had more than a few good to okay ones. He didn't live up to his contract, but few players would have. It's not like it was a total disaster, either, as he did hit 204 home runs with 599 RBI, 1,004 hits, and an .802 OPS over the life of it.

Don't remember Soriano only for his failures with the Cubs and the massive paychecks he collected from them. Remember him as a good (but flawed), sometimes great ballplayer who combined power and speed like few others, hit wherever he went, then quickly faded away.

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