Today in the Philadelphia Daily news, writer Paul Hagen offers an intriguing point of view on the Phillies' World Series victory from 2008: It might not have happened if they had signed outfielder Alfonso Soriano.
He points out the truckload of talented younger players the Phillies have been able to lock up since Soriano was a free agent in the winter of 2006, and mentions that the lack of Soriano's albatross contract has also given the Phils the flexibility to made trades for players like Cliff Lee.
Intriguing, even if the cynic in me says "of course hindsight is 20-20."
Soriano has been a mystery to Cubs fans for the past couple seasons. His legs haven't been close to the 40-40 guy the organization sold the faithful they were acquiring with the enormous deal GM Jim Hendry threw at the one-time second baseman.
He's only stolen 47 bases in three years in Chicago after stealing 41 in 2006, his contract year.
He also hasn't displayed the consistent power the Cubs thought they were paying for when they brought him on board. Indeed, his power numbers have dropped in each of his three seasons with the Cubs.
Now he's dealing with a bad knee that required season-ending surgery.
Have I mentioned that he's a laughable acrobat when "playing defense"?
Hagan's thesis that not spending the big money on a player like Soriano, despite his impressive resume at the time, has been one of many catalysts that has propelled the Phillies to the top of the National League East division for the past couple years.
His thesis is both interesting and frustrating for Cubs fans.
As I said before, hindsight is the great equalizer for sports analysts and fans. Knowing now, three years later, that Soriano was nowhere near the 40-40 player that was commanding so much attention is great, but at the time he was being sold as the best thing since sliced bread.
My counter argument to Hagan's thesis is that Soriano has played a major role in the Cubs winning back-to-back division titles for the first time in a century. He might be a miserable defender and his number might be sliding the wrong direction, but he served his role in 2007 and 2008 for the Cubs.
Now, friends, is where the real value of Soriano's contract becomes the reason for discussion.
Soriano will turn 34 in January, and we've already discussed his diminished returns at the plate. The Cubs gave him a contract that stands to pay him $18 million annually through 2014.
In the final year of his contract, Soriano will be 38 with a surgically repaired knee and Helen Keller's defensive skills making $18 million.
Unfortunately for the Cubs, Soriano projects as a skinny designated hitter who, despite his career .326 on-base percentage, prefers to bat lead-off. Good luck moving that off the books.
This is what makes Soriano so crucial to the Cubs' immediate future. The Cubs are at a crossroads this winter. With Derrek Lee and Ted Lilly only having one season left on their current contracts, the Cubs have 2010 as their final season with this core group of players together.
The recovery of Soriano, one of their highest paid players, is critical if he is going to serve his ultimate purpose in Chicago: bringing a World Series to the Cubs.
Hagan's statements about having flexibility with payroll are all valid, but the Cubs could have similar options if they play their cards right. Soriano is certainly a ridiculous contract that's going to be nearly impossible to move, but one contract has never sunk the Titanic. It's about the team around that contract that's important.
Ask the Phillies how good they feel about arbitration now that Ryan Howard's been there.
If the Cubs are going to make lemonade—to abuse a cliche—they need to build a team around Soriano that can win. Soriano's absence isn't what won Philadelphia the World Series, it was strong talent development and sound business practice.
Perhaps the Cubs should worry about those two aspects of baseball instead of overpaying veteran band aids this winter when they try to find the right mix to get back into October baseball.