Prospect Retro: Alfonso Soriano
Alfonso Soriano began his professional baseball career in Japan, playing 57 games for the Hiroshima Carp in 1996 and hitting .214 at age 20. If you consider Japanese competition to be somewhere between Triple-A and the major leagues in terms of quality, that was not a bad performance for a player his age. He followed that up by hitting .252/.293/.421 in 68 games for Hiroshima in 1997, drawing the attention of North American clubs. Looking for a big payday, he retired from Japanese ball in 1998 to become eligible for a North American contract. The Yankees signed him late in the year to a four-year major league contract worth $3.1 million, enamored with his power and speed potential.
Assigned to Double-A Norwich in 1999, he hit .305/.363/.501 with 15 homers and 24 steals in 89 games. He struggled in a 20-game Triple-A trial, hitting .183, then was overmatched in nine major league games, going 1-for-8 although his single hit was a home run. Despite his strong performance, there were a few problems in his profile. It was uncertain how old he was. His strike zone judgment was shaky, and his defensive skills at shortstop were criticized. I gave him a B+ in the 2000 book, rating him as the Number 23 prospect in baseball. In retrospect this was too low, but I was a lot more of a plate discipline fanatic back then than I am now. I also had some sort of vague skepticism about whether he'd completely turn his undoubted tools into skills.
Soriano moved up to Triple-A in 2000. On the surface, his numbers look good: .290/.327/.464, 12 homers, 14 steals. But his OPS was actually just 4 percent better than league average, and the MLE on his on-base percentage was a very weak .290. There were also further doubts about his defense. I lowered his grade to a B, worried that we had another Juan Samuel on our hands, a guy with stupendous tools but not enough refinement to become a consistently excellent player.
Soriano hit .268/.304/.432 with 18 homers and 43 steals for the Yankees in 2001. But it was his 2002 season that really stood out: .300/.332/.547 with 39 homers, 51 doubles, and 41 steals, despite an absolutely horrid 23/157 BB/K ratio in 696 at-bats. I had questioned Soriano's ability to maintain that kind of production in an early-season article for ESPN, and late in the year I wrote up a new piece showing that I'd been wrong, and pointing out that Soriano's season was the best season ever in major league history by a player with plate discipline that bad. You can find that old ESPN piece by clicking here.
What to make of him since? His on-base percentages will always be mediocre, but his power and speed have value. He is miscast as a leadoff hitter in my opinion, although he did draw more walks this year. He's not as good a player as some people think, but he's better than some statheads are willing to admit. He's certainly done better than I expected he would back in 2000 or 2001.
Will the Cubs regret the contract? I suppose it really depends on what they expect. He's certainly a durable player, and you can count on him to be at least a 30-30 guy every year. He is on the wrong end of the age curve now, and 2006 was probably his career year. My guess is that he'll downshift back to his '03-'05 level of performance, post an OPS in the .840 range or so instead of the .911 he put up in 2006.