Yankees trying to bring back Alfonso Soriano to provide righty pop
Nine and a half years after trading him away for — of all people — Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees are in discussions to reacquire Alfonso Soriano from the Cubs in order to provide some of the righthanded power missing from their lineup. According to a report on Tuesday from George King III of the New York Post, the Cubs would pay “the bulk” of the remaining money on Soriano’s contract, which is about $7 million for the rest of this year plus $18 million for next year. As with the springtime acquisition of Vernon Wells, this is a deal borne of desperation, with the Yankees taking on a flawed, aging player near the end of a bad contract in the hopes that he can provide a boost to a decimated roster.
It remains to be seen whether the other part of the Wells parallel comes true, with the Yankees exercising their financial might and using fancy accounting to minimize the impact Soriano’s addition will have on their payroll, and particularly, their luxury tax. Then again, it also remains to be seen if the deal gets done at all. As a player with 10 years in the majors and five with his current team, Soriano has the right to veto any trade, and he is said to have exercised that right last year when he passed up two possible trades, including one to the Giants.
On Tuesday, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer told MLB Network Radio that no trade was imminent. As reported by ESPN Chicago , Hoyer called talk of a Soriano deal “very premature” but said he was heading to Arizona (where the Cubs are playing) to meet with his leftfielder about interest from multiple teams. Early Wednesday morning, ESPN Chicago quoted Soriano as saying:
“My agent sent me a text message telling me the Yankees called and he said [the Cubs] called him… If they are getting closer, I will think about it. The president [Theo Epstein] told my agent there was nothing close yet. If we get something close, I want to have time to think about it.”
In the wake of Tuesday’s announcement of Ryan Braun’s suspension, New York’s effort to acquire Soriano suggests that it is bracing for an even longer one for Rodriguez, who was on schedule to return from his rehab assignment on Monday until being diagnosed with a Grade I quad strain over the weekend. Confronted with a mountain of documentation regarding his connections to the Biogenesis clinic and performance-enhancing drug use in lieu of a positive test, Braun agreed to a suspension for the remainder of the season, a total of 65 games. In doing so, the shamed Milwaukee slugger bolstered the legitimacy of the evidence provided by clinic operator Tony Bosch, not to mention the tactics by which it was obtained, tactics that many (this writer included) expected the players’ union to challenge. SI’s Tom Verducci reported, “A source familiar with those presentations indicated the level of information and sourcing regarding Rodriguez exceeded the trove on Braun, including texts, bank receipts and other detailed corroborating evidence.”
Even if Soriano’s return to the Bronx would not be tied to Rodriguez’s suspension, the 37-year-old leftfielder would still be coming full circle. He was signed out of the Dominican Republic by Japan’s Hiroshima Toyo Carp, and then acquired by the Yankees in September 1998. Soriano spent three full seasons and parts of two others with the big club. As a rookie in 2001, he snatched the starting second base job away from scatter-armed Chuck Knoblauch and hit 18 homers while helping New York win its fourth straight AL pennant. He came up big in the postseason as well, with a walk-off homer against the Marines’ Kazuhiro Sasaki in Game 4 of the ALCS, and then a go-ahead homer off the Diamondbacks’ Curt Schilling in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the World Series; alas, Mariano Rivera uncharacteristically fumbled that lead away in the ninth. Soriano earned All-Star honors and placed third in the MVP voting the following year, hitting .300/.332/.547 with 39 homers and a league-best 41 steals, leading the league in plate appearances (714), runs (128) and hits (209) as well. He bashed 38 homers, stole 35 bases and hit .290/.338/.525 in 2003, but fell out of favor with manager Joe Torre and was benched for a game during the 2003 World Series.
When third baseman Aaron Boone, who had hit the pennant-winning homer for the Yankees that season, suffered an offseason knee injury, Soriano became the key piece the Yankees used to acquire Rodriguez and the remainder of his 10-year $252 million contract from the Rangers in February 2004. Soon afterward, it came to light that Soriano was two years older than previously believed, 28 instead of 26. Still, he had big seasons for Texas (2004-2005) and Washington (2006), earning All-Star honors while averaging 37 homers and 30 steals per year. That led the Cubs to sign him to an eight-year, $136 million contract, the fifth largest in MLB history at the time. Though he held his own for the first couple years of that deal, injuries — including September 2009 surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee — cut into his playing time and cost him speed and mobility. From 2008 through 2011, he averaged just 128 games a year and was worth a total of 0.7 Wins Above Replacement, that while making around $61 million.
Last year, the 36-year-old Soriano experienced a rebirth, hitting .262/.322/.499 with 32 homers, for 2.4 WARP, his best season since 2007. He worked particularly hard to improve his defense in leftfield. Even with the money still remaining on his deal, he attracted interest ont he trade market; he exercised his no-trade power to prevent a deal to the Giants, in part out of fear for what the cooler San Francisco climate would do to his knee.
The decision was a costly one for both Soriano and the Cubs; he missed out on being part of a world champion, while the Cubs paid him handsomely to be part of a team that has continued to go nowhere. After finishing 61-101 last year, Chicago is 44-53 thus far, and it has spent around $11 million for a now-37-year-old to hit a much less impressive .254/.287/.467, albeit with 17 homers, eight of which have come this month. Soriano’s approach at the plate has become particularly hacktastic; he’s drawn just 13 unintentional walks in 383 PA, for a rate of 3.4 percent, down even from his 5.1 percent career mark.
Alas, the Yankees can’t pass up the pop. Without the righty-swinging Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, as well as switch-hitter Mark Teixeira, their righthanded hitters have batted .221/.284/.310, ranking dead last in the majors in the latter two categories as well as home runs (24). Just two of those homers have come since May 22, one of them by Teixeira, who’s done for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn tendon sheath in his right wrist. In that two-month span, New York’s righties have hit an unfathomable .204/.264/.253, with Wells (.188/.226/.221 in 164 PA) the chief culprit, but far from the only one.
With Curtis Granderson not due back from a fractured pinkie until the first week of August, Wells (.239/.286/.368 overall), Ichiro Suzuki (.276/.314/.379) and the now-injured Zoilo Almonte (.261/.305/.341) providing negligible production from the outfield corners, and their DHs hitting a cumulative .212/.300/.362, the Yankees rank 12th in the league in scoring at 3.92 runs per game. On Monday night, they were shut out by the Rangers, the eighth time this year they’ve been blanked — one off their highest total of the past 22 seasons, set in 1997.
Given that, Soriano’s warts-and-all offensive palette would represent a boost, just as the return of a past-prime Rodriguez would. With the team 53-47, 3 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot and seven games from the top of the AL East, even a one- or two- win upgrade could be the difference between playing in October and sitting idly. As Baseball Prospectus’ Sam Miller noted in connection with Monday’s Matt Garza deal, had the two wild-card rule been in effect over the past five years, the playoff fates of an average of four teams per year — in/out, division/wild card, top seeding — would have been altered by two-game swings in the standings. Such moves matter, and for the 2013 Yankees, at the cost of a relatively modest amount of money toward a player who could patch their banged-up roster, the acquisition of Soriano may well be worth it.