Springtime Storylines: is Alfonso Soriano toast?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  Next up: The Cubbies


The
big question: Is Alfonso Soriano toast?

Kind of seems like it, doesn’t it? 109 games in 2008. 117 games last year, in which he hit a measly .241/.303/.423 and stunk up the joint in left field. The contract makes this bad enough — he’s still owed $18 million a year for the next five (!) seasons — but his production isn’t sufficient to carry left field at almost any price. His original promise of power + speed is all gone.  There’s hope in some quarters that pairing Soriano up with Rudy Jaramillo will lead to a resurgence, but Soriano had the two worst years of his prime while under Jaramillo’s care in Texas.

A great bounceback season for him would probably look like fairly
standard left field production: 30 homers a.280 average or something
close to it. Maybe 15 steals.  Nice enough if your leftfielder is a role player, but not the sort of guy on whom you build a
team. Unfortunately, Soriano is who the Cubs are built on, for better or worse, for the
next few years.

So what
else is
going on?

  • More likely candidates for a return to form than Soriano: Carlos Zambrano and Geovany Soto, each of whom reported to camp — altogether now — in the best shape of their lives. Read what you will into spring training stats, but Soto has hit for zero power in Mesa. Zambrano has been more or less himself once you account for the dry air and all of that. Clearly the Cubs need these two fellas to bounce back if they have any hope of competing.
  • So much of the blame for last season’s terribleness was placed on Milton Bradley’s shoulders. He’s gone now, of course, so who will the notoriously sour Chicago media kick around this year?
  • Ted Lilly, Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells form what, on paper, is a decent rotation. Lilly is out to begin the season, however. Assuming no setbacks for him this is clearly the team’s strength.
  • The lineup is obviously the make or break of this team. Last year far too many at bats were given to the likes of Joey Gathright, Aaron Miles, Bobby Scales, Koyie Hill and Ryan Freel. To avoid that, Soriano and Aramis Ramirez will have to be healthy. To build up from .500 Derrek Lee is going to have to maintain his resurgence. Marlon Byrd will have to show that he can handle centerfield and that he isn’t a product of the Ballpark at Arlington, neither of which I’d bet a ton of dough on. Fontenot and Theriot will have to improve. Just a lot of things need to happen.

So
how
are they gonna do?

I’m really pessimistic about this team for some reason. I don’t think Derrek Lee has another .972 OPS season in him. I think Soriano is toast. I think Aramis Ramirez’s health is going to continue to be a source of concern. Ted Lilly’s injury scares me. It just seems like way too much to overcome, especially considering that their $140 million payroll doesn’t give them much leeway with which to overcome things. 

Prediction: Fourth place, NL Central, with Piniella calling it a career after this.

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Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.