MESA, Ariz. – Alfonso Soriano will always find reasons for optimism. It doesn’t matter if it’s the last day of spring training or the end of a 101-loss season.
In that way, the $136 million man is just like the hopelessly addicted Cubs fans that will boo him or cheer him depending on their mood: Forever looking on the bright side.
Soriano walks through the room with a smile on his face, a wink here, a nod there, tapping a teammate on the shoulder. As he looks around the clubhouse – and out across the entire game – he sees that youth is king.
Soriano hit his fifth bomb this spring as the Cubs closed out their Cactus League schedule (16-18) with Thursday’s 6-4 loss to the Seattle Mariners. They ended their 17-year run at HoHoKam Stadium and left Arizona hoping they could be one of those surprise teams that seem to emerge every year.
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At the age of 37, and with two seasons still left on his megadeal, Soriano doesn’t think the old, expensive, brand-name teams are sure things anymore.
That’s part of the reason why Soriano’s in no rush to waive his no-trade rights. Plus, he believes there will be leaps forwards from core players like Anthony Rizzo (age 23), Starlin Castro (23) and Darwin Barney (27), while the system develops the Javier Baez/Jorge Soler/Albert Almora generation of prospects.
“We play with emotion,” Soriano said. “All those guys, they’re young and they’re passionate. That’s the most important thing. … I believe in this team because it’s young.”
After being on Rizzo Watch for almost half of last season, the Cubs are banking on their first baseman to produce 30 homers and 100 RBIs across the next six months. He believes his experience with Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic accelerated his learning curve, getting a feel for slowing the game down and playing under pressure.
After all that hype before getting called up to The Show, Rizzo blended seamlessly into the clubhouse, even while the media made him the center of attention.
“Absolutely no one was jealous or taken aback by it,” Barney said. “We wanted him to come and be ‘That Guy.’ Because when you put him in that lineup, you can see the difference, how much more length our lineup had. We have someone to sit in the three hole and we can work around him.
“We’re hoping he’s the catalyst of our offense this year. We need him to really come out and do the things we know he can. Everyone was anxious about him being in our lineup – and it proved right when he came up hot.”
Watching Rizzo during batting practice, you get a sense for how much he actually enjoys playing baseball. You see him throw balls back to second base by posing like a pitcher, looking over his shoulder and doing the full wind-up. Then you’ll notice those soft hands and the agility as he catches the ball while doing an acrobatic split.
“It’s just something I take pride in, especially the routine,” Rizzo said. “With Starlin and Barney (seeing) me doing that every day, they’re going to feel comfortable making their throws – and making the unbelievable plays where they can throw in any direction and I’ll be able to catch it.”
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This will be Year 4 in the big leagues for Castro, who’s expected to rejoin the team this weekend in Houston after taking time to be with his girlfriend for the birth of their child.
Castro isn’t worried about batting .300 or collecting 200 hits. It’s all about improving his defense and overall focus.
“I know God gave me that (ability) – I can hit,” Castro said. “I want to be like Barney and win a Gold Glove. It’s going to be fun – win the Gold Glove at shortstop, second base and first base.”
The front office hired Dale Sveum for his patience, sense of calm and willingness to teach at the major league level. The manager wants to eliminate the “lackadaisical” plays that come with youth.
“Castro’s come a long way in his development,” Sveum said. “He had to develop more in the big leagues than other guys do, but sometimes we forget that. (The) errors that come about from young players and lack of concentration (are) the things we got to get rid of. We gradually did that last year. And now that’s the next level you got to get to – where those are very, very minimal.”
Sveum’s culture-changing mission isn’t complete, but the environment remains serious and professional, with no apparent divas in the clubhouse. That’s not going to make anyone fear this lineup, but it’s a good building block in a multiyear project.
“This team has a totally different attitude this year,” Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija said. “It’s going to pay off huge for us. You got guys like (David) DeJesus and (Nate) Schierholtz and those guys that come out and play the game every day. They don’t complain. They work hard.
“Now we just need to go out and find ways to win games and that’s the good thing about this lineup and this team. We don’t have any ‘me-guys’ out there. Everyone’s out there for the team and that’s what it takes to get that extra run across or tie the ballgame up in the ninth. You need that stuff to win ballgames in the big leagues.”
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Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer appreciate how Sveum doesn’t always ask for veterans as a default setting (though he does have specific ideas about the types of players they should acquire). The manager is open to watching players grow and learn on the job.
So is Soriano, who watched the rookie who once lived in his Chicago pad grow up and sign a $60 million contract last summer. Near the beginning of spring training, Castro was asked what it would be like to play for a winning team, how much better he could be in a pennant race.
“I’m going to be like more superstar than I am,” Castro said, laughing with reporters. “That’s what I’m supposed to be in the future. I know I can be pretty good, because I’ve never been lazy with my work habits. I try to be better every day.”