All stats current through the end of August
Alfonso Soriano is a popular totem for the failures of the Cubs’ Jim Hendry era, and he often is considered the quintessential scapegoat of excessive free agent spending by “old school” general managers who valued guts and brand names over aging curves, walk rates and other modern sabermetric standards.
He is routinely ranked among the worst contracts in baseball (did I miss any major media outlets there?). If Vernon Wells‘ contract was tradeable, what did that say about the unmoveable Soriano? Heck, even I have been guilty of Soriano contract bashing from time to time.
But you know something? The more I research the matter, the less I am convinced that Soriano is an “overpaid bum.” Let’s examine the facts.
Following a bottom-feeding 2006 season, the financially struggling Tribune Company tried to bolster the Cubs and make them a marketable asset. The team did this primarily with several major free agent acquisitions: Jason Marquis, Mark DeRosa, Ted Lilly and Soriano. Soriano was universally considered to be the top available free agent hitter that offseason following a 40/40 season for the Nationals in 2006.
Soriano’s contract with the Cubs was structured by year this way:
2007: $9 million
2008: $13 million
2009: $16 million
2010-2014: $18 million
Soriano also got an $8 million signing bonus, a no-trade clause, a suite on road trips, six “premium” tickets for each home game (including spring training and the postseason) and premium tickets to the All-Star Game if he was selected to play. Soriano’s contract also has award bonuses built in, and it calls for him to donate $25,000 annually to both the United Way & Cubs Care. There is no readily available information on how Soriano’s $8 million bonus was paid out, so let’s just assume the Cubs paid it all in 2007 (raising his 2007 cost to the team to $17 million).
When did the feelings about the Soriano contract take a turn for the worse? I hypothesize it was after the 2009 season.
A good chunk of Soriano’s 2007 value was driven by a red hot September, but plenty of people—especially Cubs fans—forget that it was Soriano who helped the Cubs ultimately edge out the Brewers and make the playoffs after being one of baseball’s worst teams the year before. Soriano was unquestionably one of baseball’s best in 2007 (after a 40/40 season in 2006). Only eight other hitters (plus CC Sabathia) outproduced Soriano’s WAR in 2007, and all but two of those hitters (Chipper Jones and Chase Utley) did it while playing at least 20 more games than Soriano did that season.
Soriano followed up his superstar 2007 with an elite 2008 campaign that was marred by injuries. In only 109 games, Soriano racked up 4.1 WAR and 29 home runs. If he had played the same number of games in 2008 as he did in 2007, his WAR would have eclipsed 5.0. Both years, Soriano provided the Cubs with really good defense from left field and a strong throwing arm—much stronger than most would expect from a former second baseman.
Just as in 2007, Soriano was a key cog in the Cubs; dominant 2008 season that saw them again win the NL Central. (While Soriano certainly helped the Cubs reach the postseason in 2007 and 2008 with his combined 11.1 WAR, his playoff contributions in the six games (29 plate appearances) consisted of just three singles and a walk.)
Despite their postseason failures in 2007 and 2008, the Cubs were still in strong “win-now” shape heading into 2009. They signed Milton Bradley as their token lefty power bat who could walk (something the Cubs desperately needed) following his two strong seasons with the Rangers and A’s/Padres. The Cubs also were going to receive a “full” season of Rich Harden who, while quite injury-prone, had been downright dominant for the Cubs down the stretch in 2008.
The 2009 season, however, did not work out for the Cubs. It seemed that almost every player hit the DL at some point, while poor seasons from Geovany Soto, Bradley, Harden, and Soriano (he hit .241/.303/.423 following a combined .291/.340/.547 triple-slash line the previous two seasons) led to disappointment on the North Side. Most forget that the Cubs were in first place in the NL Central as late in the season as August. Instead, fans remember only the volatility of Bradley and the poor season by Soriano.
It was at this point that the “he’s overpaid” narrative began to appear in the popular press, as Bradley’s signing became even more questionable. I think the Bradley contract controversy spilled over onto Soriano and his 2009 struggles; a perfect media storm of questionable contracts (Kosuke Fukudome being another) and sentiment on the North Side turning against Hendry’s failure to produce a World Series winner fueled the “worst contract in baseball” narrative.
To be sure, several baseball writers criticized Soriano’s back-loaded contract from the start, arguing that the Cubs would regret it after several years. However, the contract put the Cubs in a strong contending position from 2007-2009. Before 2009, fans proudly wore their Soriano jerseys. He was a popular star, and had the Cubs made it to the Series one of those years, I doubt so many would call the signing a total flub the way most writers do in hindsight these days.
First, let’s look at the raw production of Soriano during his tenure with the Cubs through the end of August 2012.
A quick glance at Soriano’s six-season WAR totals with the Cubs reveals one bona fide superstar season, another elite season cut short by injury, two All-Star seasons (one still in progress), a disappointing, below-average season, and a replacement-level season. There has been much more good than bad, and Soriano’s average season production on the Cubs is pretty darn respectable: 3.1 WAR with a .348 wOBA that, adjusted for park factors, has been eight percent better than the major league average player’s offensive output.
Further, contrary to popular opinion, Soriano has been a defensive asset for the Cubs. Take 2012 as evidence. After averaging about seven errors a year with the Cubs, Soriano is the only outfielder this year with zero errors in at least 150 chances. While Soriano is unlikely the three-win defender he was in 2007, he is just as unlikely the negative defender he was in his disastrous 2009 campaign.
Fielding metrics are notoriously fickle in small sample sizes, even in single seasons. Usually you need at least three years of data before you can say something somewhat reliable about a player’s defensive talent. UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) is a flawed sabermetric tool, but it is a better defensive yardstick than fielding percentage.
Soriano’s fielding value per 150 games played (UZR/150) over the past six seasons combined rates at an elite +15.5 runs over more than 6,100 inning. That leads all qualified major league outfielders, as does his aggregate fielding runs above replacement (FRAR) value of +68.5.
Soriano’s arm is also surprisingly strong given that he was a second baseman for almost his entire career before coming to the Cubs. Only Jeff Francoeur, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Adam Jones and Hunter Pence have higher rated arms according to Fangraphs.
These numbers are all relative to the “replacement level” player; that is, how much better Soriano has been than the best guy in Triple-A in any given season. Compared to the average major league player (subtracting two wins from each of Soriano’s seasons and zeroing out any season that would have produced negative value), Soriano still has produced 9.3 wins above average in his time with the Cubs.
Before we move on, it is essential to note that no one is claiming Soriano’s production has been elite over the past six years. He is not even top 50 in cumulative WAR since 2006 among qualified hitters. However, a player does not need to be the best in order to be worth a lot, and this is the key theme.
Taking stock of Soriano’s value as a Cub—by season and cumulatively, according to WAR—the next step is to put a dollar value on a “free agency win” for each season of Soriano’s contract. The value of free agency wins is different from the average value of a win because service time-controlled players make less under the arbitration process than free agents do.
According to THT’s Dave Studenman, the value of a free agency win in 2007 was $5.1 million. Per Fangraphs’ calculations before it added stats that measured baserunning, a free agency win was worth $4.1 million in 2007. Let’s split the difference and say it was $4.6 million. We need to account for the increased cost of a win from 2008-2012, so let’s peg it at 10 percent per season. This would be about in line with Fangraphs’ free agency win value inflation rate by season between 2002 and 2008 and would put the 2008 free agency win value at close to $5 million.
However, for the sake of argument, let’s give major league teams the benefit of the doubt when it comes to smarter signings and better dollar expenditures and keep the dollar value of a win constant at $5 million from 2008 to 2012, ignoring inflation entirely after year one. Keep in mind we are using values scaled to Fangraphs’ WAR system, not any other WAR system such as the ones calculated by Baseball-Reference or Baseball Prospectus.
Using a $4.6 million free agency win value for 2007 and a constant $5 million free agency win value from 2008-2012, we get the following “value chart” (assuming the entirety of his signing bonus was paid in 2007 and pro-rating his 2012 salary through the end of August for Soriano’s contract to date).
|Year||Wins||Win Value||Dollar Value||Contract Price||Net (DV-CP)|
We find that Soriano’s aggregate “overpay” to date calculates to around $8.3 million. That averages out to just under $1.4 million per season. But here’s the kicker: $8.3 million over six seasons would be the value of the overpay to the average major league team. The value of a marginal win to a playoff contender is considerably higher than it is to a non-contending team. Teams stand to gain substantial additional revenue from reaching the playoffs through additional ticket sales, additional concession sales, potential TV deals, marketing, additional branded product sales, etc. I have seen the average additional value of a playoff win range between $1 and $2 million. Let’s cut the difference at $1.5 million dollars and apply it to the Cubs’ contending seasons. But which seasons?
Without a doubt, the Cubs were a contending team in 2007 and 2008. Soriano’s hot bat was one of the main reasons the Cubs ultimately downed the Brewers to win the NL Central in 2007, while his four-plus win production in 2008 surely helped the team clinch the division again. For most of the year, 2009 was also a contending season for the Cubs, who were in first place in the NL Central standings as late as August.
On the flip side, no one is going to argue the Cubs were in any sort of competition for a playoff seed in 2011 or 2012, as they have not even had a .500 record in any of the past three seasons.
But what of 2010?
On one hand, the Cubs were never above .500 that season. On the other hand, following a collapse in 2009, it seemed the Cubs were poised to again compete for a playoff seed. By my bullish homer projections for the “last chance season” of the Chicago Cubs, the roster had the talent to potentially win 90 games in 2010 if 2009 were to repeat itself without the bad luck of injury and a dead-cat bounce from Soriano.
Obviously, hindsight tells us the Cubs were about as close to a contender in 2010 as Marlon Brando was in On The Waterfront. However, hindsight does not mean the Cubs were not spending with foresight as a potential contender. To try to neutralize my homer bias, I will not consider 2010 a “contending spending” season for the Cubs. That gives us three years of contending spending and three seasons of regular spending for the Cubs.
Adjusting the above chart data to reflect the additional marginal value of a win to a playoff contender, here is what happens to that original $8.3 million dollar overpay in a vacuum:
|Year||Wins||Win Value||Dollar Value||Contract Price||Net (DV-CP)|
Factoring in the value of free agency-purchased wins to a playoff contender, we see that Soriano has actually produced slightly positive value for the team. By these calculations, Soriano has been worth a little over $5 million in surplus value to the Cubs to date.
Even if we slash the marginal playoff value of a free agency win to an additional $1 million (as opposed to $1.5 million), Soriano’s contract value would be a wash relative to his cost. Using the $1.5 million figure, Soriano’s been worth just under a million dollars more per year on average for the Cubs than he has been paid by them (admitted, two-third of this surplus value is fueled by his 2007 and 2008 seasons).
Thus, by these calculations, Soriano is not only not grossly overpaid by the Cubs, he is not really overpaid at all. He’s likely been paid market value or slightly under market value for his services.
Of course, Soriano’s past production is not going to help any team that would acquire him in the future, which is a sticking point in negotiations for a player set to make $36 million over the final two seasons of his contract. But from the standpoint of the Cubs, Soriano is hardly the “overpaid bum” fans and media make him out to be.
Let’s assume for a moment that my analysis is correct. Is it really likely that Soriano will continue to produce in his age-37 and age-38 seasons to justify being paid $18 million per year?
Frankly, the answer is probably no.
Standard aging curve projections for players past their peak tend to assume a 0.5 win falloff per season. With Soriano on pace for a 3.8 win campaign this season, that would mean that Soriano could be projected to produce 3.3 wins in 2013 and 2.8 wins in 2014.
Given that Soriano is on the wrong side of 35, however, let’s be a little more bearish and say that Soriano could be worth a total of five wins over the next two seasons as a left fielder. If we hold the value of a free agency win constant at $5 million, that would peg Soriano’s expected rest-of-contract value at $25 million—or $11 million shy of the $36 million he is still owed.
The first thing to note about that $11 million is that it should be offset by the $5 million in surplus value that Soriano has likely produced for the Cubs to date. If the Cubs were to try to move Soriano, they could eat that $5 million before giving away more than they have gotten. That leaves approximately $6 million dollars in “overpay” value to consider.
On one hand, if the Cubs were to trade Soriano to a contending team, that $6 million could easily be made up for by the marginal value of a win to a playoff contender. If a win is worth between $1 and $2 million additional dollars to a team trying to, and capable of, making the playoffs, then Soriano’s projectable five win production in 2013 and 2014 would cover the “overpay” in and of itself.
On the other hand, if the Cubs were to keep Soriano, that $6 million dollars is arguably offset by the surplus value of the David DeJesus signing. DeJesus got off to a very slow start to the season, but he is still on pace to produce somewhere in the 2.0-2.5 WAR range, which would put his contract surplus value at almost $5 million this season alone. DeJesus’ contract gives the Cubs additional financial flexibility with respect to Soriano without leaving a hole in left field (at least once Brett Jackson is here to stay).
It is also worth considering that Soriano provides value to the Cubs off the field, although measuring the value of these contributions to the organization is impossible. “Intangibles” have been a fun poking point ever since the Fire Joe Morgan era came and went, but as overvalued as things such as leadership, grittiness and “playing the game right” may have been traditionally, these things do have some value to the organization’s public image and internal workings.
By all accounts, Soriano is the kind of guy who leads by example and plays the game right; he is a true baseball professional. He arrives early to spring training. Some call him the “hardest-working guy in the clubhouse“. He mentors young players and even plays a role in the team signing its young cost-controlled players to long term deals. He donates money to charity and is spending his money to help provide meals to children in impoverished areas of the Dominican Republic. He takes his “boos” in stride when he is not producing. He genuinely loves Chicago. Heck, as my father likes to point out, he even “wears his socks right.”
Those qualities may not contribute to a team’s end-of-season win total, but they certainly help project a positive public image for the Cubs, it provides the team with leadership by example, and it gives the organization a positive role model for kids in an era of sports still tainted by steroids. That kind of public image marketing is not cheap.
But even ignoring all these caveats, off-sets and justifications against calling that last $6 million (or $11 million, if you want to call call Soriano’s contract-to-date a wash) on Soriano’s contract an overpay, that all pro-rates to $750,000 of overpay per year ($1.4 million if the contract-to-date has been a wash).
While three-quarters of a million bucks may not be “chump change,” when viewed through the lens of major league baseball that is barely more money than the cost of adding a quad-A player to the major league roster. Is overpaying Soriano by that amount for eight seasons really that outlandish for a franchise that is trying to buy a win-now window after what is now over 100 years since the last time it won a World Series?
Soriano’s career is tainted by unfair popular media rhetoric. His defense is criticized, but unfairly. His contract is called one of the worst in baseball, yet he’s been one of the rare $100-million contract players who arguably has been worth his contract.
His contract might be unmovable for a variety of reasons (Soriano wants to stay in Chicago, other teams do not or cannot eat the cost of his contract, etc.), but from the standpoint of what the Cubs paid for and what the Cubs have gotten to date, Soriano gets a bum rap.