By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; D01
MESA, ARIZ. -- When we think of Alfonso Soriano in Washington, we remember a player who delighted and confounded but never failed to entertain, who did things on the field that have not been seen in those parts before or since. His 2006 season still stands as the single best in franchise history. And then just like that, he was gone.
In Chicago, though, they increasingly think of Soriano as an enormous bust -- his health a constant question mark, his contribution a net negative, his contract an albatross around the necks of the Cubs franchise. Remember when he bolted the Nationals to sign an eight-year, $136 million contract with the Cubs in November 2006, and we all lamented the fact the Nationals simply couldn't compete at those dollars?
It perhaps is a good thing they couldn't, or else it might be the Nationals, not the Cubs, who are stuck with a declining, chronically injured, 34-year-old left fielder who is still owed $95 million over the next five seasons, a guy the Cubs would gladly give away to anyone willing to take the contract along with the player.
Even during spring training, where every outlook is rosy and every slumping veteran has finally gotten himself right, it is hard for the Cubs to muster much enthusiasm for Soriano anymore. Instead of speaking in terms of statistical goals that might befit a star making $18 million annually, the Cubs say they merely hope to keep him on the field. Once their leadoff hitter, he has been dropped to an as-yet-undetermined lineup spot right after all the still-productive hitters.
"He'll hit fifth or sixth," Manager Lou Piniella, admirably spinning the demotion as a promotion. "A good RBI spot."
Only Soriano himself, it seems, believes he can be the player he was in Washington four years ago, the one who -- after a memorable standoff in spring training when he balked at switching from second base to left field -- hit 46 homers and stole 41 bases in Frank Robinson's final season as the Nationals' skipper.
"I still have the talent," Soriano said recently at the Cubs' spring training home at Hohokam Park. "The only thing for me is to stay healthy, so I can help the team to win. If I stay healthy, I will put up the numbers."
When he signed with the Cubs before the 2007 season -- in what was, in hindsight, the final spurt of exorbitant free agent spending across baseball -- Soriano seemed a safe enough bet. He had averaged 37 homers and 33 steals over the previous five seasons. He had never been seriously hurt. And he had the type of body -- lean and wiry, all fast-twitch muscles and sinew -- that typically ages well.
But Soriano has not aged well at all. First there was a quadriceps strain, then a calf strain, then a broken finger, then, last year, knee surgery. In three seasons in Chicago, he has averaged 27 homers and nearly 16 stolen bases, while playing an average of only 120 games. Once seen as the heir to Sammy Sosa's legacy of home runs and popularity at Wrigley Field, he became the target of frequent boos from the home fans in 2009.
"The fans [in Chicago] never see me at my best," Soriano said. "I hope this is the year I can concentrate only on baseball and not about if I'm healthy."
Back in 2007, Soriano was the centerpiece of the Cubs' $300 million offseason, as the Tribune Company attempted to bolster the Cubs' roster for the purpose of attracting a buyer for the franchise. The ploy ultimately worked, as the team (and its related assets) was sold for $900 million to investment banker Tom Ricketts in 2009.
But now, the Cubs' roster is full of dead weight. Kosuke Fukudome, the disappointing Japanese outfielder, is owed $28.5 million over the next two seasons. Pitcher Carlos Silva, acquired in a toxic-asset swap with Seattle this winter for Milton Bradley, has $25 million coming to him the next two seasons (though the Mariners are kicking in about a third of that). Pitcher Carlos Zambrano, still capable of dominating when healthy, will earn $56 million over the next threeyears.
After a relatively quiet offseason in which their biggest purchase was center fielder Marlon Byrd, at $15 million for three years, the Cubs appear to be pinning their 2010 hopes on bounce-back seasons from their veteran position players. The key fact: The Cubs scored a staggering 148 fewer runs in 2009 than they did in 2008, with essentially the same lineup -- crushed by a wave of injuries that sent 12 players to the disabled list for 30 or more days.
"And to our credit, we still finished over .500," Piniella said. "I told our kids at the end of the season how proud I was of them. They held it together. It could have easily slipped away."
Soriano played for much of the 2009 season with a sore knee, before the pain became too much to bear. He had surgery in September -- ending his season with a .726 OPS (on-base plus slugging) that represented a 185-point drop from his 2006 high -- and spent the offseason on an accelerated rehab schedule.
"I've never been on the DL before" coming to Chicago, he said. "I've always been a healthy player. Now, I feel like I have to work harder to stay healthy."
He will probably never again be the player he was in 2006, but he can still be better than the limping, slumping out-machine he was in 2009. At this point -- and for the next four years -- the Cubs would take that.