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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Rays sign lefty Ryan Merritt to a minor league deal

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The Tampa Bay Rays have signed lefty swingman Ryan Merritt to a minor league contract. Nah, it’s not a big signing but we’ll take anything today.

Merritt, who has spent his entire career in the Indians organization, spent the entire 2018 season at Triple-A Columbus. It wasn’t a bad year for him — he posted a 3.79 ERA and a 52/2 K/BB ratio in 13 starts and two relief appearances covering 71.1 innings — but the Tribe just couldn’t find a role for him at the big league level. He has shown in the past, however, that he can hack it in the bigs, having posted a 1.71 ERA in 31.2 innings with the Indians between 2016-2017.

His thing is that he simply doesn’t strike guys out at anything approaching a typical clip for a big leaguer: 3.7 per nine innings in his small sample of major league outings and 6.3 Ks per nine innings in the minors. Which, while it may not prevent him from having success at the big league level, is likely a reason for the limited number of chances he’s been given.

The Rays are probably the best place he could go, frankly. They’ve shown themselves willing to utilize guys in unique ways and are more likely than most teams to find places to spot a lefty control specialist who has shown he can both start and come out of the pen.