Over the next three years, Alfonso Soriano will earn $54M from the Chicago Cubs, or basically the GDP of a small island nation. This much we just about know for certain. If the Cubs elect to drop him as though hot, then they are guaranteed to earn zero production from the pride of San Pedro de Macoris, but would have at least one more roster spot -- both on the 40-man and 25-man roster -- to play with, as well as a starting left field position available for the taking.
The most important questions, though, are: What can Soriano offer the Cubs? And, more crucially, do the Cubs benefit from playing Soriano?
First question first: What can Soriano do in 2012?
Let's assume Soriano's present walk rate (a terrible 4.9%), his strikeout rate (23.3%), and home run rate (5.6% or 24 over 429 plate appearances) stay the same next year. The walk rate is the third worst of his career and the strikeout rate is pretty much a career worst, but -- hey -- he's going to be 36, so depreciation is in full force at this point in his career.
The final major component of his hitting (according the present analysis, at least) is his batting average on balls in play (BABIP). For his career, just about 1 out of every 3 balls he's hit into play have gone for a hit. This year, that average is a career low .263 -- a descent not uncommon among the aged and injured.
Well, assuming his rates stay at their 2011 levels, we can construct a contingency chart that lets us predict how well he will do in 2012 at different levels of BABIP. Using the Should Hit, we get this:
This year, Alfonso Soriano has been league average and then a little worse. According to weighted runs created (wRC+), he's been 1% below league average (not including today's 0 for 2 showing). Remember, that's with a .263 BABIP.
As recently as last year, though, Soriano had a .295 BABIP, despite hitting slightly fewer line drives than this year. So, maybe this year has actually been just kind of unlucky? Maybe he gets back to a near-.300 BABIP?
If he indeed does rebound, he would be hitting somewhere around 11% to 14% above league average. That's not bad. That's like what Peter Bourjos has hit this year with a .278/.329/.442 slash. (But don't bother comparing the defense between the two.)
At 114 wRC+, that would be more offensive value than Carlos Pena's 2011 season -- a 112 wRC+, heavily penalized by his really, really cold start.
If Soriano's BABIP stays low and his rate-stats stay where they have been all year, then the Cubs need to find a platoon partner or even start thinking DFA. (Despite his rough year, Soriano has actually excelled against lefties, hitting 22% above average against them.)
But even if his hitting comes around and he has a late-career surge, where does he fit in the Cubs plans?
This is where the problem expands. Earning $18M per year pretty much guarantees he will not out-produce his contract value. Moreover, the Cubs -- by most analysts expectations -- will not be competitive in 2012.
So the question becomes: How valuable is a roster spot? Are the Cubs willing to eat $10M or $16M or the whole $18M in order to give a young guy some MLB time?
Phew. That's a lot of change paid in the name of trying to catch lightening in a bottle (I'm looking at you, Tony Campana). But, what if a team hungry for power, rich in prospects, and looking to fill a DH spot is willing to throw a few 'spects the Cubs way?
Yeah, I'm thinking about the ever-poor, ever-competitive Tampa Bay Rays. Sending Soriano and something close to maybe $15M or $16M down to St. Pete might just entice away a pitching prospect or two. A pitching prospect in the top 20 with the Rays is in the top 5 with most other organizations, so there's bound to be a few interesting no-names buried in their system (see: Zach Rosscup).
Of course, Tampa Bay is in a habit of selling lemons, not buying them, so Soriano would might need to prove he can still hit before the Rays consider swinging a trade, and by then, they may well have filled their DH opening (they may even elect to re-sign Johnny Damon).
The truth is this: Alfonso Soriano is broken. He is nowhere near the World Devourer he once was in 2006 and 2007. And, odds are, he's out of baseball at the end of 2012.
Still, he may yet offer the Cubs something worth while. If he rebounds and the Cubs are somehow competitive, then he could play nice starting left field, maybe even play a platoon role with a strong left-handed hitter or fielder. If he rebounds and the Cubs are rebuilding, then he might still bring the Cubs some prospects as well as speed the rebuilding process by giving Campana and Tyler Colvin and maybe even a few Quad-A types a chance to prove themselves.
If he doesn't rebound, well, he'd be the world's highest-paid pinch hitter and lefty-masher. For maybe a month or two.