Chicago Cubs

If healthy, Soriano believes he will keep producing

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If healthy, Soriano believes he will keep producing

Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010
8:14 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

WASHINGTON Alfonso Soriano is 34 years old in a game that is emphasizing youth, with a contract that runs through 2014, a 136 million investment leftover from a different economic climate and ownership structure.

For Soriano, the calculus is simple: If the Cubs play well, hell be cheered. If not, he gets booed. Fifty-fifty, he likes to say nothing personal, just the way it is at Wrigley Field.

Soriano also clings to this basic idea: If he is healthy, he will produce. He is 11-plus months removed from the arthroscopic knee surgery that ended his 2009 season after 117 games.

Occasionally the left knee feels weak, but the Cubs outfielder has experienced no significant pain this year. And on Wednesday night in Washington he played his 118th game no one on the current roster outside of Marlon Byrd has appeared in more.

Soriano noticed how Byrd races across center field with maximum effort and thought: I can do that, too. Hes also been energized by 20-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro, a fellow native of the Dominican Republic he has mentored.

The night before Soriano took his time enjoying the flight of his three-run homer into the left-field seats at Nationals Park. It marked the ninth consecutive season he has hit at least 20 home runs. Among active players, only Alex Rodriguez (15 seasons), Albert Pujols (10), Adam Dunn (nine) and David Ortiz (nine) have been that consistent with their power numbers.

If Soriano continues to take care of his body, he thinks he can finish out his contract by putting together four more seasons of 20-plus homers.

No, I dont feel older, he said. I think Im in better shape this year than the last couple years.

The waiting area of the managers office inside the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park has a framed Soriano jersey and photo. It commemorates his 40-40 season in Washington, the one he used to sign an eight-year deal with the Cubs in November 2006.

Soriano clearly isnt the same player anymore. He led National League outfielders in assists with 19 in 2007, but has six so far this season, a total that still keeps him among the leaders in that category.

Before taking over as manager for Lou Piniella, Mike Quades responsibilities included working with the outfielders and Soriano in particular.

Look, given where his legs are now, Quade said, compared to where they (were) when he became a Cub, theres a huge difference. And so the ground he can or cant cover has changed quite a bit.

The arm is fine, but his ability to close on balls and do things that allowed him to throw people out that first year (has) changed. But hes taken it upon himself and he deserves a huge tip of the hat here because I think hes done a much better job this year.

In April, it looked like Piniella might be forced to turn Soriano into a six- or seven-inning player, one who would almost always require a defensive replacement late in close games.

Instead, hes hit with the third group during batting practice, so he can take balls off the bat from the first group. Then he tracks balls off the fungo bat of coach Ivan DeJesus during the second round.

You just got to work and theres no magical thing, Quade said. Hes made a commitment to it.

Soriano is absurdly wealthy, but he still maintains a child-like enthusiasm for the game. He would like to be in the lineup every day from April through October, but concedes that is no longer a reality.

I want to, he said, but to be honest, nobody can play 162 games in Chicago. There are too many day games. The body doesnt have time to recover.

The Cubs have absorbed several shocks to the system this month. Soriano took out his earrings, folded his arms across his chest and stood in a clubhouse that bears little resemblance to the one he first walked into.

Its not easy, man, he said. Its not easy to play the game. And when those things happen around the team, it makes it more difficult (after) Lou announced his retirement and all those trades. (I) hope the last five, six weeks left of the season we can play more relaxed, because its nothing new now. Well stay together (and) finish strong.

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

Are Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 vs. Nationals?

Are Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 vs. Nationals?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Are the Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 against the Washington Nationals?

“I’m not even anywhere near that,” manager Joe Maddon said during Tuesday’s pregame media session with the Chicago media, immediately shifting his focus back to the decisions he would have to make that night – how hard to push catcher Willson Contreras coming off the disabled list, what the Cubs would get out of lefty Mike Montgomery, how the bullpen sets up – against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“Players can do that kind of stuff. I don’t think managers can. Honestly, I don’t want to say I don’t care about that. I just don’t worry about that, because there’s nothing to worry about yet. Because first of all, he’s got to be well when he pitches, too.”

Arrieta had just completed a throwing session at Tropicana Field and declared himself ready to face the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday at Miller Park. That would be the Cy Young Award winner’s first start since suffering a Grade 1 right hamstring strain on Labor Day. It would set him up to face the St. Louis Cardinals next week at Busch Stadium and start Game 162 against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

“The plan is to be out there Thursday,” said Arrieta, who would be limited to 75-80 pitches against the Brewers and build from there, trying to recapture what made him the National League pitcher of the month for August. “The good thing is the arm strength is there – it’s remained there – and I actually feel better for maybe having a little bit of time off.

“The idea is to be able to be out there the last game against Cincinnati – pretty much at full pitch count – and to be ready for the playoffs.”

Five days after that would be the beginning of the NL divisional round and what could be a classic playoff series between the defending champs and Dusty Baker’s Nationals. The Cubs started Jon Lester in Game 1 for all three playoff rounds during last year’s World Series run and their $155 million ace could open a Washington series with an extra day of rest.

“It’s inappropriate to talk about that now,” team president Theo Epstein said. “We have a lot of work to do, and those would be the guys that would help get us there in the first place. If you’re lucky enough to get into that situation, you’d just use all the factors. You guys all know – who’s going the best, who matches up the best, the most experienced – and we figure it out and go from there. But we’re still a good ways away from figuring that one out.”

Untouchable: Javier Baez showed why Cubs built around him during takeover at shortstop

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AP

Untouchable: Javier Baez showed why Cubs built around him during takeover at shortstop

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Imagine Javier Baez wearing a New York Mets uniform or playing in an empty Tropicana Field and where the Cubs would be without their backup shortstop.

The trade speculation still lingered into this season, even after Baez blossomed into a National League Championship Series co-MVP and a World Series champion. Maybe it was just out of habit since Theo Epstein’s front office spent years collecting hitters and planning to deal for pitching, or a perception issue for a prospect who wasn’t drafted by this regime and has a “flashiness” to his game that recently got this unfair, narrow-minded label from a Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster: “A difficult player for me to root for.”

But the Cubs never traded Baez to the Tampa Bay Rays for one of those starters who usually seems to be on the rumor mill – Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore – and that decision continues to look better and better in hindsight.   

Baez again showed why he is essentially untouchable while Addison Russell slowly recovered from a strained right foot and plantar fasciitis, starting 41 of 42 games at shortstop between Aug. 3 and Sept. 16 and hitting .282 with eight homers and 27 RBI during that stretch.  

Deep down, Baez still views himself as a shortstop – “yeah, for sure, if I get the (chance)” – while deferring to Russell (who was activated over the weekend) and understanding that the Cubs can again have an elite defensive unit when he moves back to second base.

“When I play short every day, obviously, I’m going to be ready for it and making all the adjustments to be there,” Baez said. “I do my best to help the team. Addie’s a big part of the team.”

Remember how shaky the defense looked up the middle when Russell missed the 2015 NLCS with a hamstring injury and the Mets swept the Cubs out of the playoffs?  

The Cubs created enough depth – and room to grow – to stash an All-Star shortstop on the disabled list on Aug. 4 and go from being a 57-50 team with a 1.5-game lead in the division to running a season-high 17 games over .500 heading into Tuesday night at The Trop.  

Even though Joe Maddon lobbied for Baez to make the Opening Day roster during his first post-Rays spring training in 2015, the manager also made a point to say he didn’t run an entitlement program.

Maddon would not anoint Baez as an everyday player heading into this season, even after he started all 17 games at second base during last year’s playoffs and starred for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.

“If you had done that with him two years ago, he would have buried himself,” Maddon said. “Absolutely. I don’t think he would have made the same adjustments at the plate. You would have seen a lot more mistakes on defense. You would have seen a lot more routine plays not handled routinely. You would not have seen the same base running. Even though he had it in his back pocket, I just think that he’s learned how to really pick his moments there, too. He wasn’t ready for all that.”

There is something to the idea of taking the good with the bad with Baez. Except there are no perfect players and so few have his mind-blowing combination of skills, love for the game and sixth sense for highlight-reel moments.    

“You don’t teach those things – that’s just God-given talent,” catcher Alex Avila said. “He’s been able to put it together. You see those plays. But the work that goes into it – as far as being in the right spot, having the right first step, anticipating the ball, things like that – all that kind of gets you the result.

“(It’s not only) making sure he’s making the routine plays, but he has the athleticism and the wherewithal to be able to make the spectacular plays as well.”

Instead of focusing on the tattoos or the hairstyles or a swing that can get out of control at times, remember that this is someone who already has 22 homers and 70 RBI in the middle of September – and a .791 OPS in his age-24 season that represents a 54-point jump from the year before – for an iconic team with World Series expectations.

“You could see there was a lot of stuff for Javy to iron out,” Maddon said. “He’s worked them out. It’s a lot of repetition. It’s a lot of good coaching. But it’s about the player himself, being able to make those adjustments. I honestly think his path has been a good one. And I think the way we did it last year was perfect.

“Everything’s happened as it should organically for him."