I lived in Chicago for about four years, 2007 through summer 2011. For that entire time, Alfonso Soriano competed for the unofficial title of Most Hated Man in Chicago, fighting it out with Rod Blagojevich and whoever was the Bears’ quarterback of the moment. From what I can gather, he’s slid from that lofty post as people have simply stopped paying attention to the Cubs, but the perception of him is still that of one who has disappointed and underperformed, the symbol of Cub failure for the last half-decade or more.
It wasn’t Soriano who okayed his own signing for too many years and too much money, and seemingly everyone knew that he was never going to be the 40-40 superstar the Cubs paid top dollar for, but really, Soriano has disappointed under any reasonable standard. He’s probably not nearly as bad on defense as fans tend to think he is, but even giving him that much credit, the best you can say of Soriano’s Cubs career is that he's a guy who alternated good but injury-riddled years with healthy but bad ones.
As such, it’s fitting that just now, in the year in which even the true dyed-in-the-wool Cubs fan has started to give up and let his or her attention wander a bit, Soriano has finally started to earn his keep, more or less. He currently has the most plate appearances (583) and home runs (31) he’s had since his Cubs debut in 2007, a career high in RBI (105), and the best batting average (.263) and slugging percentage (.504) he’s had since his good-but-injury-shortened 2008. The .317 OBP is still ugly, but taking into account how offense is down league-wide, you could argue it’s good by Soriano’s standards (he’s ten points behind the park-adjusted league average, compared to a fifteen-point career disparity). Baseball Prospectus’s FRAA, Fangraphs’s UZR, and Baseball Reference’s Total Zone all rate him very highly for his 2012 defense, with DRS the lone holdout that has him a bit below average. By FanGraphs’ WAR, he’s been worth 3.8 wins, which in turn is worth $17.2 million on the free agent market, giving him time yet this season to "earn" the full $18 million he will have been paid for his services.
So, for the first time since at least 2008, Soriano has been more or less worth what the Cubs are playing him. What does that mean for a team that needs to win four of its remaining nine games to avoid 100 losses, and without a lot of help on the way for 2013?
Not much, probably, to the team currently on the field; it’s all about the trade market. Following this season, Soriano will be owed $36 million for the two years left on his deal. It’s still a ton of money, but finally an amount and a time commitment that some teams would probably be willing to swallow if they thought it meant a key upgrade to a potential championship team. He’s still not going to bring a top prospect -- far from it -- but after years of popping up in salary-dump rumors, the upshot is that Soriano has played himself into a position where it’s not totally crazy to think he might command some value to the right team. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he were on the move to a potential contender this offseason; failing that, if his first half of 2013 mirrors his 2012, I’d expect TheoJed to work out a creative deal for his final year and a half that does more than save money.
So as unexciting as the theoretical possibility of a not-terrible trade for some barely-prospects may be, you’ve got to consider that Soriano’s contract was obviously disastrous to most fans and analysts the moment that it was signed, and that for most of it, it’s played out even worse than we foresaw. The idea that now, six years later, Theo & Co. might finally be able to turn that mistake into even a moderate positive is... well, it’s never going to be exciting, but in a lost season, it’s something.