The boos and the big contract never bothered Alfonso Soriano


They don’t boo nobodies.

That’s what Alfonso Soriano once told Tony Campana, who used that line after talking so much trash and getting eliminated from Dale Sveum’s 2012 bunting tournament.

It summed up Soriano’s swagger, the way he interacted with teammates, walking around the clubhouse saying, “Another day in The Show, babe.”

Soriano admitted it was weird playing right field for the New York Yankees at Wrigley Field – as the highest-paid player and biggest name the Cubs have on their books this season. He got polite applause during his first at-bat, and some boos in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss, as the crowd of 38,753 had thinned out on a rainy night.

Soriano became the symbol of “Win One for The Tower” when he signed a $136 million megadeal after a last-place finish in 2006. The next time the Cubs go for it – maybe sometime before 2020 – they better hope that player checks as many boxes as Soriano.

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“When I played here, I think the fans focused on the contract and not the player,” Soriano said, surrounded by reporters in the visiting dugout. “I just play every day, with pain in my knee, and try to make the team better. They don’t realize because they don’t see that.

“They see the contract. They don’t see who I am, how I play. It’s a little different now. But the most important thing is the players, the coaches, the front office, they know how hard I work to get better.”

Soriano had already done one media session in a cramped corner of the visiting clubhouse. Ichiro Suzuki walked into the middle of that one, waiting to get to his locker, sunglasses perched on the top of his head and a green tote bag slung over his shoulder.

The stars blend in with the Yankees, a franchise that can absorb decline years, import new free agents and keep extending that window to contend. It slammed shut for the Cubs after winning two division titles during Soriano’s first two seasons on the North Side – and forming the leveraged partnership between Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. and the Ricketts family that turned this into a small-market team.

“When the team’s doing bad, and you’re the face of the team, for any reason they start booing. I know that,” Soriano said.

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After approving the trade to New York last July, his old teammates erupted when they watched Soriano hit his first home run at the new Yankee Stadium. All the way across the country, they yelled at the TV and cheered inside the visiting clubhouse at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.

Jeff Samardzija – now the longest-tenured player in a Cubs uniform – once called Soriano “the epitome of bravado and machismo.”

Cubs reliever James Russell remembered the time Randy Wells asked Soriano if he had change for a hundred. Soriano responded: “Hundreds are change, babe.”

“He’s one of the cooler personalities you’ll meet in baseball,” Russell said. “It was just a pleasure to play with him. I wish we could have kept him around a little longer. He’s a good veteran leader to have in the clubhouse and on the field. I wish nothing but the best for him. I’m happy to see him back where he started.

“He has a fun way of going about things and it was cool to be around. It kind of opens your eyes to the big-league lifestyle and what you could make out of this game. And once you get there, how to act and kind of carry yourself.

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“He’d get his boos in Wrigley. I don’t see how you can boo a guy like that, but a lot of people don’t know him the way that a lot of the guys in the locker room know him.”

Yankees manager Joe Girardi already knew the scouting report: “Very professional. Loved in the clubhouse. Comes to play every day. Gives you everything he’s got. I’ve never met a person who’s said a bad thing about Alfonso Soriano.”

Soriano drives fancy cars, wears flashy jewelry and enjoys flipping his bat and hopping out of the batter’s box. But he’s also a grinder, willing himself to play almost 2,000 games in the big leagues and hit more than 400 career home runs. He reinvented himself as a pretty good outfielder and says he feels like he could play maybe two more years.

After going 0-for-4 on Tuesday night, Soriano will be back at Wrigley Field on Wednesday morning.

“I wish they can win soon, because it’s a great city, good ballpark, good fans. They need it,” Soriano said. “That’s what I signed up for – to win here – because it’s a great organization and great fans. It didn’t happen. But I hope in the future they have the opportunity to win.”

2018 Preview: New York Mets

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The New York Mets.

Things couldn’t have gone much worse for the Mets in 2017, so the fact that they won 70 games is actually remarkable. Their hailed rotation was a shambles, as Noah Syndergaard made only seven starts. Zack Wheeler put up a 5.21 ERA over 17 starts; Matt Harvey was even worse with a 6.70 ERA across 18 starts and one relief appearance. Steven Matz compiled a 6.08 ERA in 13 starts. Just about the only consistency the club had came from Jacob deGrom, who finished with a career-high 3.53 ERA in 31 starts.

The rotation, as of right now, is healthy, save for deGrom, who has been battling a minor back issue during this spring. But so far, so good for everyone else. Well, there was Jason Vargas, who signed a two-year, $16 million deal with the Mets last month and suffered a non-displaced fracture of the hamate bone in his non-throwing hand. He underwent surgery and is expected to return shortly after the start of the regular season. But I mean, at least they still have everyone else!

Well, Michael Conforto is still recovering from shoulder surgery last September. The Mets are targeting May 1 for his return. That’s everyone, right? Wright? Where’s David Wright? The third baseman underwent two surgeries in September and October last year for his shoulder and back and still isn’t feeling well enough to play baseball, so the Mets shut him down for eight weeks.

The Mets haven’t had a legitimate full-time third baseman since 2014, Wright’s last full season. No Mets third baseman has played more than 55 games in a season at third base in the last three seasons. So the club went out and signed Todd Frazier to a two-year, $17 million contract. Frazier split last season with the White Sox and Yankees, hitting a combined .213/.344/.428 with 27 home runs and 76 RBI. While Frazier is now 32 years old and has seen a decline in power, he did set a career-high in walk rate last year at 14.4 percent and he’s still a solid defender. Frazier is still more than a capable player and he’ll look like a Greek god at the hot corner compared to what the Mets have trotted out there lately.

Shortstop at Citi Field now belongs to 22-year-old Amed Rosario. Among the top prospects in baseball, Rosario struggled last year, batting .248/.271/.394 across 46 games. Rosario has the most upside of any position player on the Mets’ roster, so his success will play a rather large factor in the team’s success this year. He can be a doubles and triples machine and a big threat on the bases if he gets his feet underneath him against big league competition.

Asdrubal Cabrera will handle second base. He’s been, quietly, quite good for the Mets over the last two seasons, offering a solid offensive approach along with his versatility – he played second and third base as well as shortstop last season. Now 32 years old, Cabrera hit .280/.351/.434 with 14 home runs and 59 RBI last season, which is more than enough when manning a position in the middle of the infield.

At first base, the Mets were able to pluck Adrian Gonzalez off the free agent wire. Gonzalez had gone to the Braves in the Matt Kemp trade, but the Braves quickly dropped him. The 35-year-old had a nightmarish 2017, compiling a .642 OPS in 71 games as he was bothered by back issues throughout the year. He became overshadowed in Los Angeles by Cody Bellinger, who won the NL Rookie of the Year Award, so the Dodgers had no reason to keep him around. Dominic Smith had been another first base option but he suffered a quad injury early in spring training and likely won’t be ready by Opening Day.

Travis d’Arnaud will get the lion’s share of starts behind the plate, backed up by Kevin Plawecki. d’Arnaud provides power, which is always nice to have from a catcher, but he doesn’t hit for average or draw walks, so his batting average and on-base percentage are underwhelming. And while d’Arnaud hasn’t been anything to write home about stopping the running game, he’s regarded as a good pitch framer.

In left field will stand the Mets’ biggest offensive threat, Yoenis Cespedes. Sadly, the slugger was limited to 81 games last year as he battled various leg injuries. When he was in the lineup, he hit .292/.352/.540 with 17 home runs and 42 RBI in 321 plate appearances. Among hitters who have taken at least 1,000 plate appearances since the start of the 2015 season, only 21 have put up a higher weighted on-base average than Cespedes (.368), who finds himself just ahead of Carlos Correa and just behind Corey Seager on that list.

Juan Lagares and Brandon Nimmo will share center field for the time being. Nimmo is having a big spring, putting up a .283/.361/.585 line with eight extra-base hits and 10 RBI in 61 spring plate appearances. He’s likely to bat leadoff against right-handed starters. Lagares isn’t having nearly as good a spring (.483 OPS) but will be in the lineup against lefties and will provide value with his Gold Glove-caliber defense. It’s also quite possible the Mets will trade him as they have gotten some interest lately.

Jay Bruce returns to right field after inking a three-year, $39 million contract in January. The slugger put up a solid .254/.324/.508 line last year between the Mets and Indians with 36 home runs and 101 RBI. Though he struggled – for the most part — in his first go-around with the Mets in the second half of 2016, he’s good for at least 25 home runs and 90 RBI if he can stay healthy, which the soon-to-be 31-year-old has been able to do in recent years.

New manager Mickey Callaway says he plans to use a closer-by-committee which will include Jeurys Familia, Jerry Blevins, A.J. Ramos and Anthony Swarzak. It’s a committee that could certainly have success, but Familia and Ramos are both coming off of down years and Swarzak has been slowed in spring training by a calf injury. The Mets will also have Paul Sewald, Hansel Robles, Rafael Montero, Seth Lugo, and Robert Gsellman providing help from the ‘pen. Wheeler could as well if the Mets determine he can provide more in a relief role than in a starting role.

With all their warts, the Mets do have a competitive roster. The starting rotation has the potential to be really good, led by a now-healthy Syndergaard and followed by deGrom. The offense should be a buoy in the midst of all of the other displeasing variance the Mets will likely wade through during the season. The bullpen won’t be world-beating but will likely not be a serious source of concern given their options. FanGraphs is projecting the Mets to win 82 games while PECOTA has them at 81, which means they’ll be in the mix for the NL Wild Card. That sounds about right to me, but ultimately I think they’ll fall just a bit short of .500.

Prediction: 79-83, third place in NL East.