Cubs: Alfonso Soriano turns up the volume

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Cubs: Alfonso Soriano turns up the volume

Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011Posted: 4:05 p.m.

By PatrickMooney
CSNChicago.com CubsInsider Follow @CSNMooney
ST. LOUIS Alfonso Soriano entered the clubhouse on Saturday morning still wearing sunglasses. He heard his teammates start cheering for him and a big smile crossed his face. It seems like this whenever he walks into the room.

HEY BABE!

The night before, Soriano had blasted the go-ahead, three-run homer in a game the St. Louis Cardinals absolutely had to have to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. He also watched with pride as Starlin Castro notched his 200th hit of the season.

To Cubs fans, Soriano will always be the guy who hasnt lived up to his 136 million contract.

Ask Castro and the 21-year-old shortstop will tell you how much Soriano has meant to his rapid development. One by one, Castros crossing off the goals Soriano set for him at the beginning of the season: Hit .300, get 200 hits and make the All-Star team.

My first spring training with the Yankees, I was very shy, Soriano recalled. (Derek) Jeter, Mariano (Rivera), Bernie Williams, all those guys treated me like: Hey, Sori, youre part of the team.

They gave me confidence in myself and I learned a lot from them. I just try to do the same with him. Because when those guys gave me confidence, I changed my game.

Time has changed Sorianos game. Injuries to his lower half quad, calf, knee slowed down an athlete who was once a 4040 threat. Defense was never his first priority. Hes a free-swinger (.288 on-base percentage) who wont star in Moneyball.

This isnt an 18 million player. Yet by the last weekend of the season, Sorianos streakiness had settled at this point 25 home runs and 85 RBI.

Soriano hasnt hit this many homers since 2008. This also marks the most runs hes driven in during his five seasons on the North Side. He has 44 RBI in 60 games since the All-Star break.

Yes, 10 of those homers came in April, and Soriano hit .186 in July. He disappears at times. But the final line could make some American League team think hes worth a shot as a designated hitter if the Cubs pay most of the 54 million remaining through 2014.

Ownership already seems prepared to write off almost all of the 18 million Carlos Zambrano is due next season. The next general manager will have to figure out what to do with Soriano, whos repeatedly made it known that hed be willing to waive his no-trade clause if hes not wanted anymore.

Whatever happens, it wont be because of the corrosive effect Soriano has on a team. While Zambrano and Milton Bradley were islands in the clubhouse, everyone seems to be drawn to Soriano.

There (are different) qualities of leadership, manager Mike Quade said. Some guys (are) willing to look somebody in the eye and say, Lets go (expletive)! (Others) keep guys loose.

Sori has always shown up to work hard and have fun playing. Like all of us, there are days where youre irritated with him. But he comes back with the same outlook and the same smile every day. And that matters.

After a last-place finish in 2006 and with a push from the Tribune Tower the Cubs went on a huge spending spree. They re-signed Aramis Ramirez, hired Lou Piniella and brought in Soriano, Ted Lilly, Mark DeRosa and Jason Marquis. They won back-to-back division titles.

It seems unlikely that a new ownership group will respond to another lost season by handing out megadeals. Tom Ricketts has repeatedly said that he wants to build a team from within. The chairman doesnt sound eager to try to buy his way into first place on the free-agent market.

If the Cubs truly commit to a youth movement in 2012, Soriano could in his own unique way have a positive impact on those inexperienced players. Castro will be forever grateful for his friendship.

Hes as loose and as much fun to be around right now as anybody on this club, Quade said. Hes always been that kind of guy. But hes louder now.

In the end, there arent many in Chicago better at blocking out all the noise.

Id take 10 homers, 20 RBI, whatever, if we make the playoffs, Soriano said. Thats why Im here, to make the team better and try to make the playoffs. (It) didnt happen (this season). But I hope next year everybody puts up good numbers and we get one more chance to go to the playoffs.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

LOS ANGELES – Joe Maddon doesn’t want to put the platoon label on a young hitter who became a World Series legend before his 24th birthday. But the Cubs manager also isn’t planning to start Kyle Schwarber against left-handers anytime soon. 

“If people want to say that, I can’t avoid it,” Maddon said Friday at Dodger Stadium, where Schwarber sat against lefty Alex Wood, who took a 20.1-inning scoreless streak into this National League Championship Series rematch. “I’m going to do that until I feel good about him, because I don’t want to lay too many at-bats on him in a negative situation.

“If he’s not swinging the bat well against righties, it’s a bad assumption that I’m going to think he’s going to swing it well against lefties. Then I’m just putting him in a deeper hole by throwing him out there, just based on really bad logic.

“I’m just trying to pick his spots right now to get him going. Once he goes, he can play against anybody.”

[MORE CUBS: The 'friendly rivalry' between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman]

Schwarber – who’s hitting .181 with a .656 OPS and 55 strikeouts in less than 200 plate appearances this season – will start Saturday against Dodger right-hander Brandon McCarthy. But even with Clayton Kershaw looming on Sunday, Maddon didn’t want to give Schwarber the entire weekend off, the way Jason Heyward mentally reset last August at Coors Field.

“I don’t think it’s there yet,” Maddon said. “I’ve had good conversations with him. I think it’s a different set of circumstances.”

For the Cubs, this doesn’t really change their overall evaluation of Schwarber as a core player and potentially one of the most dangerous left-handed sluggers in the game. But Maddon has been backing away from the idea of Schwarber as a leadoff hitter, trying to reboot the player who had been such an intimidating postseason presence.

“My concern when the guy is struggling a little bit is you don’t want him to get him too many at-bats,” Maddon said. “It’s really hard to get yourself out of that mental, physical and numerical hole. By not getting him as many at-bats, it will be easy to get back to a number he’s more comfortable with.

“I don’t care about that – I really don’t. I’m looking at his past, process, what he’s doing for the team in regards to on-base, everything else. But for the guy himself, he looks up at the scoreboard and he sees numbers everywhere and they evaluate themselves based on numbers.

“I don’t want him to do that. I just want him to get back into the process of having good at-bats.”

The ‘friendly rivalry’ between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman with Cubs, Dodgers becoming NL superpowers

The ‘friendly rivalry’ between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman with Cubs, Dodgers becoming NL superpowers

LOS ANGELES – A man stepped to the microphone during a Q&A session at Cubs Convention and called Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman “the two boy geniuses.” The fan told Epstein how his friends used to call the Dodgers baseball boss “your Mini-Me,” asking about their personal rivalry and if beating L.A. in the playoffs had any extra meaning.

“We have a friendly rivalry,” Epstein told a packed hotel ballroom in downtown Chicago in January. “First off, didn’t he interview for an internship with us and we turned him down way back in the day?

“And then like nine months later, he was GM of the Rays. When he was with Tampa and I was with Boston, we never spoke, because we were in the same division. It was kind of a heated rivalry. We literally never called each other on trades or anything like that.”

But where it’s so difficult for the small-market Rays to keep up with the ultra-rich Red Sox – and replace Friedman’s vision and Joe Maddon’s star power and survive a string of wasted first-round draft picks and find a long-term stadium solution – the Cubs and Dodgers are positioned to be superpowers for years to come.

That’s what makes this Memorial Day weekend showdown at Dodger Stadium so compelling beyond the National League Championship Series rematch. It’s not just upcoming free agent Jake Arrieta returning to the site of his onesie no-hitter on Friday night, a reigning MVP (Kris Bryant) and Rookie of the Year (Corey Seager), two of the best closers on the planet (Wade Davis and Kenley Jansen) and a classic Jon Lester vs. Clayton Kershaw matchup on Sunday afternoon.

The Cubs eliminated the Dodgers less than a month after Epstein finalized a five-year contract worth in the neighborhood of $50 million, likely surpassing Friedman as the game’s highest-paid personnel executive.

“Jed developed a pretty good relationship with him, because I didn’t like talking to him,” Epstein said, referencing GM Jed Hoyer, another Boston transplant on the Cubs Convention panel that day. “But then when I came out here with the Cubs, a different league and everything, I developed a much better relationship with Andrew and we became friends, so now it’s much more of a friendly rivalry.

“I will say that losing to the Dodgers would have been a bitter pill to swallow on a number of fronts, including that one. But they’re developing a powerhouse out there.

“We see them as a team we have to go through each year to get where we want to be.”

[MORE CUBS: Summing up the Cubs' impressive, potentially season-altering homestand]

Backed by Guggenheim Partners’ financial muscle and flush with new TV money, the Dodgers have won four straight division titles and 90-plus games each season while ramping up a farm system that’s now ranked fourth, fifth or sixth by Baseball America, ESPN and MLB.com.

“Everyone’s got their own style and their own approach,” Epstein said. “Ours was more kind of bottom-up (where) they needed to keep it rolling at a high level in the big leagues while retooling their system and nurturing the talent that was already there.

“We had to go out and transact and bring some stuff in. We were at different points of the success cycle. They’ve done a really nice job of winning while kind of establishing something new at the same time.”

The blue-blooded franchise that produced 17 Rookie of the Year winners last month rolled out Cody Bellinger, a 21-year-old, left-handed first baseman with nine homers in his first 28 games in The Show. Julio Urias – who might be the next Fernando Valenzuela – is supposed to be conserving some innings at Triple-A Oklahoma City for another October where the Cubs could be standing in the way of the Dodgers’ first World Series title since 1988.

“They’ve been producing great young talent for a long period of time,” Epstein said. “If you go back and look at some of the young studs they have in the big leagues that (former scouting director) Logan White and (the previous regime) brought in, some of the guys are still coming.

“They’re stocked and the Dodger tradition runs really deep. With Andrew and his front office, we know they’re going to be dynamic. They’re going to have more resources than anyone. And they’re a big threat to the whole league for a long period of time.”