Posted: Tuesday November 21, 2006 8:49AM; Updated: Monday November 27, 2006 2:22PM
The Cubs not only want Alfonso Soriano to stay in the outfield next season, but move to its most pivotal position in center field.
Tom Verducci will answer select questions from SI.com users in his Baseball Mailbag.
Argue all you want that the Cubs overpaid for Alfonso Soriano (eight years, $136 million, including a full no-trade clause), but no team has had a better offseason at this early stage of the shopping season. In Soriano, Chicago signed the best available player on the market (Daisuke Matsuzaka excepted). It also signed the best manager available, Lou Piniella, added some needed pop at second base (Chicago second basemen ranked last in the league in 2006 with 57 RBI) by signing Mark DeRosa and in the second spot in the order (Chicago's No. 2 hitters ranked last with a .319 OBP), signed serviceable backup catcher Henry Blanco. The Cubs also brought back third baseman Aramis Ramirez and pitchers Kerry Wood and Wade Miller at what already are looking like bargain deals in this Owners Gone Wild winter.
The problem with Soriano is the contract, not the player. But why should that be a concern if it doesn't preclude the Cubs from other moves? And it won't. GM Jim Hendry isn't done yet. Before the winter is out he likely will have signed a starting pitcher (Gil Meche being the frontrunner for now), added a left-handed bat (Cliff Floyd being the most likely one) and signed ace Carlos Zambrano to a Roy Oswalt-styled extension. Hendry and the Tribune Company, which is exploring the sale of the team, know they won't have to worry about Soriano's value at age 39 (his last year of the contract) if the Cubs aren't any good in the short term. The money will be somebody else's problem.
"Jim's going about it the right way," one agent said. "He's been like, 'No trade? An extra year? Sure. Whatever it takes.' He's closing deals because he knows they need to win now."
The Cubs want Soriano to hit leadoff and play center field. But even Piniella isn't sure if Soriano can pull off the center field switch. "Our scouts were split on it," Piniella said. "I know from what I saw last year he improved a lot in left field as the season went on, taking better routes to balls and things like that. I think he can do it. We'll see."
The Cubs are in some trouble if Soriano can't play center. Jacque Jones? Uh, right. They also are a little too right-handed and they have too many uncertainties in the rotation after Zambrano, especially if it means counting on Mark Prior, Miller and possibly Meche to stay healthy. Left-hander Rich Hill is the sleeper, a guy who could be a 15-game winner if the Cubs step up their run support as expected. But remember, 83 wins were enough to win the NL Central last season. The Cubs won 66 last year. No one's handing them the division yet, but they've closed the gap enough on St. Louis so far to expect they will be contending next season.