In Nov. 2006, Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry signed star outfielder Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year deal worth $136 million.
To that point in his career, Soriano had a career batting line of .280/.325/.510. He had just finished a season in which he made the All-Star team for the fifth consecutive year. Over his first six full seasons of Major League experience, Soriano averaged 155 games played, 34 home runs, and 35 stolen bases. He seemed destined for greatness.
Three years into the deal, it hangs around Hendry's neck like the hopelessly tangled chain of an anchor, pulling the executive under water. Injuries limited Soriano to just 135 and 109 games in his first two seasons, but at least the slugger remained productive when healthy.
In 2009, Soriano suffered a collapse of unprecedented proportion, at least for a 33-year-old, seven-time All-Star. After seven straight seasons with an average OPS or better, Soriano was 16 percent worse than a league average hitter in that department last year. He reached base at a paltry .303 clip, good for 70th out of 77 qualifying National League hitters.
His power also suffered. He hit 20 home runs, the second-most on the Cubs, but saw just 11.5 percent of his fly balls leave the park. That number is 3.8 percentage points below his career average, and it came by no coincidence. He popped up significantly more pitches in 2009 than in any previous season (9.5 percent stayed on the infield, up from 4.8 percent in 2007 and 5.3 percent in 2008).
Perhaps even worse, Soriano's fielding deteriorated beyond what anyone could have foreseen in 2009. After being among the league's elite left fielders in 2006-07, Soriano began his backslide in '08, but fell apart completely in 2009. His defense in left field cost Chicago nearly 11 runs, according to fangraphs.com . He committed nine fielding errors, the most by any left fielder. A nagging knee injury ended his season early and likely affected his glove work throughout the campaign, but that can hardly excuse some of the league's worst individual outfield defense.
Given the painful and unmitigated failure that was Soriano's 2009, can we expect him to bounce back at all in 2010?
It's hard to say. Of Soriano's most comparable players in baseball-reference.com 's similarity scores system, two stand out as having similar tales to Soriano's:
- Entering 2004, Raul Mondesi had a career .823 OPS. His established record of power without patience matches perfectly to Soriano's. That season, Mondesi collapsed to a miserable .689 OPS, 135 points shy of his previous career mark. One year later, he was out of baseball for good.
- Howard Johnson entered 1994 with a career OPS of .792, which is not as impressive as either Soriano or Mondesi. However, Johnson (like Soriano in 2009) was three years removed from a stellar season that saw him win the home run crown and place fifth in MVP voting (Soriano finished sixth in 2006). Johnson also stole 30 bases in 1991, while Soriano swiped 41 in 2006. In 1994, Johnson managed a measly .729 OPS, and (like Mondesi) his career was over less than a year later.
This may not sound like encouraging news, but it is important to remember that Soriano is better than either of those two comparable players. He struggled mightily in 2009, yet managed an OPS just three points worse than Johnson's in 1994, and significantly better than Mondesi's 2004.
Soriano hit just .280 on balls in play last year. Even considering his injury, that number is telling. For a player with speed that remains average or slightly better, Soriano's career .309 BABIP is a better projection for 2010. That alone could be worth 10 hits next season.
Given these data, here is my forecast for Soriano's 2010 season:
- 140 Games
- 636 PA
- .270/.328/.494 AVG/OBP/SLG
- 33 home runs
Those are highly optimistic totals. Soriano could well fall short of each, and could even see the kind of irrevocable decline Johnson and Mondesi suffered. His defense will be crucial, and should improve due both to regaining full confidence in his knee, and to the law of averages. If he can produce anywhere near those levels, Chicago will gladly accept them, and will be well-positioned to return to the playoffs in 2010.
Watch for other profiles of the 2010 Cubs, which I will be doing throughout the remainder of the offseason. Here are the ones already done, and some on the way soon!