Alfonso Soriano May Be Movable After All

Posted on February 3, 2011

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Alfonso Soriano signed an eight-year, $136-million contract with the Chicago Cubs prior to the 2007 season. Even after a 40/40 season in which he had led the National League in outfield assists, that seemed like a steep price to pay for a player who drew few walks and would be 31 years old before the season even started. It was panned as one of the three or four worst contracts in baseball.

                That same winter, though, the Toronto Blue Jays made a very similarly irresponsible outlay. They signed outfielder Vernon Wells to a seven-year, $126-million contract extension, ensuring that Wells could not reach free agency and achieve a similar payday. Wells had hit .303/.357/.542 in 2006, in addition to winning a Gold Glove, so the deal did not look awful at the time.

                Within a year, though, Wells’ deal was viewed even less favorably than Soriano’s. In 2007, Wells batted a meager .245/.304/.402. He hit only half as many home runs (16) as he had the year before, and his WAR (Wins Above Replacement, a measure of overall player contributions to team success) plunged from 5.7 in 2006 to 1.5 in 2007, according to FanGraphs.

                Soriano, meanwhile, missed fully a month of the season, but swatted 14 homers in September alone as the Cubs charged to the first of two consecutive division titles. He finished with 33 homers, and his WAR rose from 5.4 (in 2006 with Washington) to 6.9.

                Thereafter, neither man proved consistently productive. Wells was good at the plate in 2008 and 2010 but miserable in 2009, and his defense went into a rapid and precipitous decline. Soriano was great when healthy in 2008, but this time, he missed two months. He played through fairly serious injuries for 117 games in 2009 and struggled both at bat and afield, but bounced back with a very solid 2010 in both areas.

                Both contracts slowly came to be viewed as immovable stains on the ledgers of each team. Both men were good teammates and hard workers, but neither held any special appeal to any potential buyer because of their price tags.

                And then, suddenly, it happened: The Blue Jays, led by cavalier GM Alex Anthopoulos, actually managed to trade Wells, to the Los Angeles Angels for (and this was the real shocker) two decent players, Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera. That changes everything.

                The Angels were broadly ridiculed for the trade, and it has (so far) done nothing to shake the moorings of the fundamental assumption that Soriano and the Cubs are stuck together. That is strange, because ultimately, there is no special reason to think Wells a better investment. Both players have four years remaining on their contracts. Wells will earn $86 million during the intervening years; Soriano will earn $76 million. Wells played center field throughout his Toronto tenure, but belongs in left field and does not profile as a substantially better fielder of that position than Soriano. Check out their career numbers:

  Batting Average On-base Percentage Slugging Average WAR
Alfonso Soriano .277 .326 .509 33.1
Vernon Wells .280 .329 .487 25.2

Source: FanGraphs

and five-year value patterns:

  Alfonso Soriano Vernon Wells
2006 5.4 5.7
2007 6.9 1.5
2008 4.3 1.5
2009 0.0 0.0
2010 2.9 4.0

Source: FanGraphs

                Both tables confirm the phenomenon: Soriano’s overall body of work is not a little, but a lot better than Wells’. Both men are flawed players, but Soriano better compensates for the lack of patience each man demonstrates with elite power. If Wells is perhaps a slightly better fielder, Soriano is without doubt the better base runner.

                Only three rather tenuous arguments support Wells over Soriano:

  1. Soriano is slightly less than three years Wells’ elder, and may more logically be presumed to be in decline.
  2. Strikeouts are a scout’s worst enemy. Big-league scouts share a fairly widespread bias against hitters who do not make consistent contact, and Soriano strikes out about 50 percent more often per at-bat than does Wells.
  3. Short-sightedness. Wells had a better 2010 than did Soriano. He hit seven more home runs, had an OPS 29 points higher in a tougher division and played 157 games—Soriano played only 147, and even that was the most he had played in five years.

Those three points are all fair, but there are flip-sides to each. Soriano may be older, but he is also more established as a true slugger; strikeouts have a far less detrimental impact than most baseball people imagine, relative to any other outs; and, as any statistician or common-sense baseball fan can tell you, what happened last on a ball diamond is not necessarily what will happen next.

        Soriano is an extremely unlikely trade candidate. A team desperate for right-handed balance in their lineup (like the Phillies) or one sorely in need of a much better left fielder (like the Dodgers) would have to be willing to take one most of Soriano’s money, and even then, Cubs GM Jim Hendry would have to be willing to surrender a chance to win in 2011 for long-term salary relief. None of that seems likely. Still, given the recent Wells deal, it should not be dismissed out of hand.

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