Chicago Cubs Photo Day

Alfonso Soriano is vastly overpaid. Let’s just get that out of the way now. He makes far too much money relative to his contributions. Just let this obvious truism hover and disipate so we can move on. Over it? Good.

Alfonso Soriano makes a very attractive trade chip at the right price. He can help many teams with his bat. Full stop. Might it be the Yankees, the upstart Cubs or some other team? Either way, Soriano provides plenty of pop should anyone require it.

The Yankees are suddenly in need of an outfielder, as Curtis Granderson is out for ten weeks after being hit on the arm by a J.A. Happ pitch Sunday. Alfonso Soriano is a former Yankee and altogether useful piece. These dots are easily connected.

Jon Heyman launched his “bring Soriano to New York” salvo yesterday, citing the Yankees lack of DH options beyond the injury-prone Travis Hafner as reason to bring Soriano aboard beyond Granderson’s recovery time.

With a full no-trade clause, the 37-year old outfielder can pick and choose where he wants to play. He is currently saying All the Right Things about the young Cubs – but shedding his salary (or most of it) can surely be among the Cubs priorities for financial reasons. Soriano insisted last season that he prefers to play on the East Coast, using his trade veto to prevent a move to the join the San Francisco Giants.

For baseball reasons, the Cubs just might hang onto Soriano for this season. After all, he’s still pretty good.

2011 was a down year for Soriano, one in which he didn’t swing the bat well at all. What looked like the beginning of a steep decline now looks more like an outlier, bookended by two nearly-identical seasons.

Year Age G PA H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2010 34 147 548 128 40 3 24 79 5 1 45 123 .258 .322 .496 .818 114
2011 35 137 508 116 27 1 26 88 2 1 27 113 .244 .289 .469 .759 104
2012 36 151 615 147 33 2 32 108 6 2 44 153 .262 .322 .499 .821 121
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/25/2013.

One big difference between 2011 and the other years: a low BABIP. A bit of bad luck for sure but Soriano did himself no favors with a wonky approach at the plate (.295-.266-.303 BABIP year-by-year.)

Isolating his swing patters in 2011 compared to the last three years as a whole shows how Soriano expanded his zone, chasing more pitchers on the outside half, causing many of the rollovers and popups by which Soriano was well known. Some of this poor approach bled into 2012, as the Cubs left fielder was homerless until mid May.

Courtesy ESPN Stats & Info

Courtesy ESPN Stats & Info

Soriano stands all over the plate and attempts hooking everything inside over the left field fence. Seems simply enough – in 2011 he got away from being who he truly is. His swing rates tell the tale, making 2011 stick out for its expanded zone.

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

Looking back through old Cubs games, there is very little to choose from in terms of Soriano’s setup. He simply had a bad year after he swung at too many pitches he shouldn’t have.

sori stances

The big question remains: was 2011 really the beginning of the end and 2012 was just the ever-popular dead cat bounce? Can a player of his age and abilities continue putting up the kind of numbers we see from Soriano over the past three seasons? His total line since 2010 look like this: .255/.312/.489, with a 6.9% walk rate and .234 ISO.

The last two numbers are important. How many players in the last 40 years or so have posted an ISO over .200 with a walk rate under 8% after their 37th birthday? A grand total of one: Andres Galarraga. Galarraga is the Platonic ideal of a professional hitter, posting very high in-play averages as a rotund older player thanks to his tremendous bat control. Soriano ain’t that.

Only five players even posted individual seasons fitting that criteria after they turned 37. Guy Who Most Definitely Never Took PEDs Craig Biggio did so but only mustered a 106 wRC+ during a highly charged offensive era. Ellis Burks crazy 2002 stands as the very best old guy goes nuts season since 1969.

So Soriano has been good, better than we realize. But will he continue to be good – this the question facing the Yankees and other teams in need of some pop. The historical precedents so not suggest as much. The problem the Yankees face is their in-house alternatives are so, so bad that Soriano represents an upgrade over everybody.

$18 million a year is a hefty price, one the Cubs will surely help go away by chipping in their fair share of the freight. Can Soriano help a contender in need of some power? In 2013, I bet he can. For 2014, the proposition gets a little dicier for any potential trade partner. Free-swinging power hitters don’t tend to get better as they near 40.

The Yankees don’t want to commit much more to their payroll but, considering the alternatives, can they afford not to roll the dice with Soriano?