Alfonso Soriano: Recollecting an albatross

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What will you remember: The player or the contract?

A joyous roar will echo throughout Wrigleyville at the end of the 2014 season.

Not because The Curse will have ended -- well, at least not the curse you're probably thinking of.

Alfonso Soriano is entering the last year of the eight-year, $136 million contract he signed with the Cubs as a free agent in 2006. And even though he's not in Chicago anymore, his former team will still be paying him until the end of the year. Last summer, the club traded Soriano to New York, agreeing to pay $16.2 million of his salary for 2013. This year, they'll shell out $13 million for the right-handed half of the Yankees' DH platoon.

At the time it was signed, Soriano's new deal with the Cubs was the biggest in franchise history (still is) and the "fifth-largest total package given to a major league player" -- one of the 25 most lucrative contracts ever (when adjusted for inflation). He had just posted the only non-PED-tainted* 40/40 season in baseball history. Turns out, that's a pretty good way to commodify yourself for the open market.

*He did not appear in the Mitchell Report. Any suspicion of PED use is nothing more than speculation. Like any player in the modern era, he might have taken them, but there is no evidence that suggests he did.

He hit .277/.351/.560 for the Nationals in 2006 with 46 homers (a standing franchise record) and 41 stolen bases. He finished sixth in MVP voting -- thanks to Ryan Howard's 58 homers, Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman doing an NL Central rendition of Magic vs. Bird, and a few other monster performances in the NL East.

But according to FanGraphs, his best season came a year later, his first in Chicago.

His 40/40 campaign in Washingotn was worth 5 wins, but somehow, his first season with the Cubs checks in at 6.6.

As a 31-year-old, he hit 33 homers, stole 19 bases, and put up the highest weighted on-base average of his career (.378 wOBA). He was also insanely effective in the outfield after the Nationals moved him off second base (39.2 UZR/150 in left field and 17 DRS). However, this might be one of those rare instances when a solid season in the field seems to disproportionately bloat a player's fWAR. UZR (or UZR/150) is, after all, subject to the same high-speed, sphere-to-cylinder eccentricities as BABIP. Year-to-year fluctuations are just part of baseball statistics -- and the game itself.

173113740David Banks, Getty Images

In any event, his first year with Cubs was a successful enough to prevent a riot in Wrigleyville. He hit .299/.337/.560, and finished the year ranked first in outfield assists and second in range factor in left field (per game). Of course, his walk rate was atrocious, and as usual, he struck out far too often -- but if the Cubs weren't prepared for that, they didn't do their homework. Before joining the team, he was striking out once every 4.7 at bats.

After a globetrotting prologue to begin his career -- Japan, New York, Texas, and Washington -- Soriano tried to settle in with the Cubs, but he never really found any consistency. Persistent leg injuries began to limit him from contributing on the base paths, and his defensive ability suffered as well.

Despite spending significant time on the DL, Soriano finished his 889-game Cubs career with 181 home runs, 526 RBI, 70 stolen bases, and a .264/.317/.495 batting line. For the sake of comparison, Adam Jones has hit .281/.324/.464 with 137 homers, 469 RBI, and 69 steals. So, Chicago got a slightly more powerful, often injured version of Adam Jones -- who is on a very similar financial trajectory, by the way.

Looking back, Soriano's time in Chicago was extremely valuable -- unless you insist on viewing his production through the rattling kaleidoscope of his $136 million contract.

Cubs fans might.

His legacy in Chicago will probably be as an albatross -- a super-talented, injury-prone disappointment that effectively shacked another generation to the shared suffering of Cubs fandom with his bank account.

That may be fair to some extent, since he did a lot of his best work before he got to Chicago.

On the other hand, unless he plays for the Yankees for another three or four seasons, he will have spent most of his career with the Cubs. He might not have ever fully actualized into one of those pure, epitomic hitters who could see the stitches with his eyes closed, but he could flat out drive the ball -- when he didn't whiff. Simply put, Soriano's career has been one of the most impressive displays of raw power and speed in baseball history.

If he can manage to steal 12 more bases in the majors, he'll become just the fifth player ever to hit 400 home runs and steal 300 bases (unless Carlos Beltran hits 42 more homers first). He has a good chance to retire with a slugging percentage over .500, something less than a hundred other batters have done. And if he can produce another handful of wins before he hangs it up, he could be considered one of the top 250 position players of all time.

Cubs fans probably don't care much about that now, though. They're just looking forward to the end of his cumbersome contract -- and it's hard to blame them.

They thought they were getting an annual MVP-40/40 Übermensch that would rise up with a Golden Glove and eschatologically deliver them from the obscenity of The Curse.

Instead, they got Alfonso Soriano -- who turned out to be a pretty damn good baseball player.

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