The all-star second baseman and the $120 million of financial relief that the Rangers received in the Alex Rodriguez trade were essential, but the key to the deal for Texas just might be a 53-year-old man who hasn't come any closer to facing big league pitching than leaning against the cage during batting practice. That's the position Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo was in for much of the spring, scrutinizing the swing, stance and psyche of that All-Star the Rangers acquired from the Yankees in exchange for A-Rod, second baseman Alfonso Soriano.
After an MVP-caliber 2003 season, Soriano looked more like an overmatched September call-up than a Most Valuable Player in the playoffs. He hit .225 and struck out 26 times in 71 postseason at bats for the Yankees, flailing at pitches well out of the strike zone. By the World Series, Soriano was so clueless at the plate that he whiffed seven times in his final 15 at bats.
If the lousy postseason wasn't enough to break his spirit, being traded in February from the best team in the East to the worst in the West ( Texas has finished in the division cellar four straight seasons) could have finished the job. But the Rangers were pleased to find that Soriano didn't arrive at camp brooding about his change of address. "My goal is always to get to the World Series," he says. "I still have the same goal in Texas that I had in New York" Soriano refers to his playoff funk as "a bad two weeks," and Texas manager Buck Showalter thinks it's healthy that Soriano considers the slump an aberration. "He's been upbeat and willing to work hard," Showalter says. "The rough patch he hit at the end of last season would shake anybody's confidence a little, but it's nothing that can't be repaired."
The repair work is where Jaramillo comes in. The Rangers regard him as the best hitting instructor in the majors, and he has the results and admirers to bear that out. Six recent MVPs—A-Rod, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa, Ken Caminiti and Jeff Bagwell—count Jaramillo among their hitting mentors.
Jaramillo believes Soriano could someday join his list of MVP disciples. "It's going to take some time," he says. "He's got a lot of ability, but he got into some bad habits last year, and bad habits create just as much muscle memory as good ones." Tired of Soriano's feasting on their fast-balls, pitchers started feeding him breaking balls away. He became so concerned with getting to those pitches that he expanded his strike zone, and the more he reached for those outside offerings the farther off the plate the pitchers went. "I was jumping and lunging at the ball," he says. "When I look at myself on tape I can see that, but I just didn't make the adjustments at the time."
Soriano's weight distribution and balance were out of kilter when he swung, so Jaramillo has been working with him to keep his weight back longer, study the pitch for an extra split second and trust his remarkably quick hands to react. "It's nothing major," Jaramillo says. "You don't jump into a guy and try to change his whole approach. We're just trying to get him back to the things that made him so successful in the past."
The Rangers need Soriano to bounce back not only to make the Rodriguez trade look good, but also because they lost 109 homers from last year's lineup with the departures of A-Rod, Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro. They're hoping that newly acquired DH Brad Fullmer and rightfielder Brian Jordan can help replace some of that power, and Jaramillo thinks Soriano has the strength and bat speed to improve on the 38 homers he hit last season.
While the Rangers could muster another potent offense this year, their pitching and defense, the main reasons for the four straight last-place finishes, don't appear to be any better. Soriano averaged more than 20 errors the last three seasons, and Michael Young will move from second to short to replace A-Rod, which means both positions are weaker. On the mound Texas hopes that young righthanders Colby Lewis and Ricardo Rodriguez develop, and that 30-year-old Chan Ho Park, who has been injured or ineffective for the last two years, finally begins to earn his $13 million salary.
Another season in last-place looks likely for Texas, and Soriano will discover that a lousy October is better than no October at all.
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