In Soriano We Trust

I’m going to come right out and say it: Alfonso Soriano makes the Cubs a better team.

When Theo Epstein arrived and promptly dumped Carlos Zambrano, many in Wrigleyville cried for Fonsie to be next out the door. When the Cubs flirted with the idea of using Soriano as the team’s leadoff hitter, one Cubs fan I know threatened to throw himself in front of a bus. Pulling himself together, he suggested that the only place he wanted to see Soriano hit was sixth—in the Astros lineup.

I understand. Dollar for dollar, Soriano is one of the worst free agents the Cubs have ever signed (eight years, $136 million). The 36-year-old Soriano strikes out far too much, and he often wanders the outfield with all the confidence of a knobby-kneed calf unsure whether to chase the ball or chew the Wrigley grass. The look on his face when he screws up is so pathetic that even White Sox fans, not known as the most compassionate bunch, find it hard to hate him.

But, listen, it’s a new era on the North Side, and the Cubs need Soriano—at least for now.

Hear me out.

First of all, forget about the money. It’s gone—a sunk cost. Even if the Cubs were to dump Soriano, they’d end up eating most of his salary and get little in return. And the team that needs him most, as it turns out, just happens to be the team already on the hook to pay him $19 million this year. Is anyone else in the Cubs’ lineup going to hit 25 homers? Hello? Is anyone else good for 90 runs batted in? Starlin Castro? Maybe. Anyone else?

What about minor-league phenom Brett Jackson, you say? Couldn’t he take Soriano’s place? Maybe he’s ready for the majors; maybe not. But the Cubs think he can still benefit from at least half a season in AAA Iowa. And since the team isn’t built to contend in 2012, there’s no reason to rush him.

But wait. Doesn’t Epstein place a premium on defense? The guy’s going to suffer a nervous breakdown every time Soriano plays a carom in the corner, right? Wrong.

Let’s play a little game: Tell me where you think Soriano ranks defensively among all the left fielders in baseball.

Now you’re thinking about plays like this one, right?

Your blood pressure’s rising and that vein in your temple is starting to pound. “He’s got to be the worst,” you say. “And if he’s not the worst, he’s definitely close. Bottom three.”

Well, guess what? Over the past three seasons, Soriano was the sixth best defensive left fielder in all of baseball. According to what? According to UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), which is one of those wonky advanced fielding metrics that make guys like Theo as giddy as Tony LaRussa at an open bar. I’ll admit that this says something about the relative weakness of left fielders, who aren’t generally known for their defense. But still, sixth place in the MLB is sixth place.

Sure, he made 24 errors and has a lowly .961 fielding percentage. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. When he’s healthy, Soriano gets to plenty of balls that other outfielders don’t, which gives the Cubs more outs. And his arm is still strong enough to keep opponents from running.

Here’s another piece of data: Last year, even though he was hampered by leg injuries, Soriano still managed a 7 Rtot (Total Zone Runs), which means he made plays in left field worth seven runs more than the average left fielder. And according to a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) analysis, he contributed more to the Cubs on defense than on offense—although in both categories he was only a hair above the league average.

Soriano’s leg injuries might explain some of the awkward moves in the outfield. Unfortunately, he sometimes seems hampered by his brain, too. You can almost see it in his eyes—the confused desperation when he’s not sure whether to slide or dive for a ball. There’s nothing more painful in all of sport than watching an athlete attempt to think. My heart goes out to the guy.

Just try to remember: the numbers show he’s not nearly as bad as you think he is. And remember that the more he plays this year, the more time he’s giving Jackson to develop, and the more options he gives Theo.

Soriano’s having a good spring (he has a .417 batting average and four homers). If he can stay hot for two or three months, you never know: some American League team without a good DH might be willing to give up a decent prospect for the guy.

That’s what the Yankees are there for, right?

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CARLOS PORTOCARRERO worked the weekend shift at the Cubs Fan Report. His favorite Cubs season of all time is 1998, which in his words was “just ridiculous.”

STORY ART: Main image re-mixed from photo courtesy hj_west/cc.

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