Chicago Cubs

The money doesn't drive Alfonso Soriano

The money doesn't drive Alfonso Soriano

Sunday, April 24, 2011
Posted: 4:18 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

In your mind, there is only one number that defines Alfonso Soriano: 136 million. Its impossible to ignore.

Of course, Soriano drives luxury cars and wears fancy jewelry and enjoys all the trappings of being one of the richest men in the game. But the figure that really matters to him is 100 percent.

Soriano talks about it constantly, how strong his knees and his legs are now, and what that means to his overall game. He can move easily, side to side and front to back, across the outfield. Hes rediscovered better balance at home plate, and his mind isnt clouded by doubts about his health.

I feel like a different guy, Soriano said. I got my contract I could shut it down and not work and stay relaxed, but thats not me. I like to work. I like the game. I like to play good in the field. I never give up and try every day to be a better player.

Soriano will always be a reference point when a team does something like this: Last week the Milwaukee Brewers extended Ryan Braun through the 2020 season, when the outfielder will be approaching his 37th birthday.

Thats 145.5 million on top of the 45 million the Brewers already owed Braun through 2015, a huge bet on his character and that he will stay healthy and productive toward the end of his career.

The Cubs know that the 35-year-old Soriano is a flawed player who doesnt have the speed to steal 40 bases anymore. But they still expect him to be productive.

A few observers noticed that Soriano came to spring training with a little more muscle in his upper body. The offseason reports out of the teams academy in the Dominican Republic were that he dedicated himself to getting into better shape.

So far Sorianos on pace for around 30 home runs and 90 RBI, but knows all about his reputation as a streaky hitter, and wants to change that.

Thats what Im looking for this year, Soriano said. Im trying to be more consistent and not be hot for like one week, two weeks and (then) cool off for like one month. I dont want to be like that.

Soriano swears by hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, and together theyve been trying to make a conscious effort to hit the ball to the opposite field more often.

Soriano has a clear idea of what he wants to do at the plate and a sharper focus once hes there. Three of his six homers have come with two strikes in the count, and 10 of his 14 RBI have come with two outs.

Yes, Soriano will stand at home plate and admire his shots, and that will always bother some fans. But hes old-school in how he looks after Starlin Castro, the same way the great Yankees Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera used to take care of him.

Soriano certainly doesnt get all the credit when manager Mike Quade says something like this about Castro: Hes better in every aspect of his game.

But theres no doubt that Soriano has been influential, making the 21-year-old shortstop feel welcome and smoothing his adjustment to the big leagues. Theyre always playing catch or walking to the cage together.

I used to be 21, 22 years old. I want (Castro) to be the same guy he is now (in) 10 years, Soriano said. You got to work hard. (I) feel like I make the minimum now. I play hard. I like to play. I dont even think about what kind of money I make in this game.

But there are constant reminders, and maybe that will be part of Sorianos legacy, which probably wasnt part of the deal he signed in November 2006. But from here until the end of the 2014 season, he will catch extra fly balls and take extra swings and want to be in the lineup every day.

If I want to be a better player, I got to work, Soriano said. Its not coming from the sky.

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

What’s wrong with Jon Lester? And is there enough time for Cubs to fix it?

What’s wrong with Jon Lester? And is there enough time for Cubs to fix it?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Even in the good times, Jon Lester doesn’t really have great body language, trying to channel his emotions, use that competitive anger and stay focused on the next pitch, so there was no way for him to hide his frustrations this time.

Lester handed the ball to manager Joe Maddon on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field and trudged back toward the visiting dugout with his head down and his team down six runs in the fifth inning of an 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays that left the Cubs searching for answers.

What’s wrong with Lester? That question snapped the Cubs out of a seven-game winning streak, the talk about playoff rotations and the computer simulations that project the defending World Series champs as a 90-something percent lock to make the postseason again.

The good news for the Cubs is the Milwaukee Brewers failed to gain ground heading into the four-game showdown that begins Thursday night at Miller Park. The magic number to clinch the National League Central is eight after Milwaukee’s 6-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But it’s difficult to see the Cubs going on a long October run when Lester – a three-time World Series champion and the Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year – looks this lost. Since coming off the disabled list – the Cubs termed it left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue – Lester has made four September starts vs. non-contenders and given up 27 hits and 12 walks in 21.1 innings.

“We’re not going to go make excuses and say that’s why I didn’t throw the ball well,” Lester said. “Physically, it’s September. You’re going to have ups and downs. I feel fine. There’s no lingering effects from anything. No, there’s nothing physically wrong.”

Are you convinced Lester is 100 percent healthy?

“He’s not saying anything,” Maddon said. “I don’t see any grimace and I don’t see any like hitch in the giddy-up. I don’t see anything. Since he’s come back, he’s had some wins, but none of them have been necessarily Jon Lester sharp.”

At a time when the $155 million ace is supposed to be building toward October, Lester didn’t have any rhythm – Steven Souza Jr. launched a 92-mph fastball over the fence in left-center field in the first inning – or the stuff to finish off the Rays (zero strikeouts, 23 batters faced).

Lester did his John Lackey impression in the second inning, screaming, stomping and staring when Brad Miller chopped a ball that bounced past first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove and into right field for a 2-0 lead.

The Rays have enough history with Lester after their battles against the Boston Red Sox in the American League East and appeared to try to get in his head. Peter Bourjos dropped a perfect bunt, Kevin Kiermaier knocked another RBI single up the middle and Lester escaped only when second baseman Javier Baez started an inning-ending double play on the other side of the bag.

By the fifth inning, Lester was hesitating and making two wobbly throws while Souza stole second and third base. Lester then drilled Evan Longoria’s left foot with a pitch and walked Logan Morrison to load the bases. Wilson Ramos finally knocked out Lester after 86 pitches with a two-run single into right field.

“Obviously, there is some concern,” Maddon said. “I don’t have any reason to give you – other than he had a tough night – and I don’t know why. It just looked different from the side, because we’re normally used to seeing sharp-cornered pitches and a little bit better velocity with everything. It just wasn’t there.”

Lester now has only two regular-season starts left to find it and fix this.

“I’m not worried about it,” Lester said. “When you pitch a long time, and you play this game a long time, you’re going to have the ups and downs. Anybody can have one good year. It’s a matter of going out there and consistently doing it.

“You got to take the good with the bad. We’ll make an adjustment and figure it out. The good thing is it’s not physical. It’s just a matter of getting back to what has been working for me in the past and making those adjustments.”

Can Cubs count on Kyle Schwarber to be the hero again?

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USA TODAY

Can Cubs count on Kyle Schwarber to be the hero again?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Cubs had so much confidence in Kyle Schwarber last year that they made him their World Series designated hitter – less than seven months after major surgery on his left knee and with only two Arizona Fall League games as the warm-up – and expected him to deliver against Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and a dynamic Cleveland Indians bullpen.

Now? Manager Joe Maddon isn’t quite ready to make that leap of faith with Schwarber, even as the October legend closes in on 30 home runs this season and puts up a .900-plus OPS since his reboot at Triple-A Iowa this summer.

“The thing you’ve got to be willing right now with Schwarbs is understanding that he’s going to do that,” Maddon said Wednesday, pointing toward the right-center field seats where Schwarber launched Chris Archer’s 96-mph fastball the night before at Tropicana Field. “And then he might strike out with a runner on third base. You have to accept both sides.

“You’re playing for that (home run) based on his ability against that pitcher, also knowing that you’re going to see the punch-out in there, too. It’s just part of who he is right now.”

That would appear to be a part-time player, as Maddon went with Jon Jay’s contact skills in the designated-hitter spot against Tampa Bay Rays lefty Blake Snell and continues to think about what will give the Cubs the best chance to win the final stages of the National League Central race.

Looking back on his time with Rays, Maddon explained some of the creative tension within a small-market operation constantly looking for ways to find an edge. Maddon called it buckets of information, how certain data points and sample sizes should be used in free agency and trades, while others informed the daily lineup/bullpen decisions and why you had to look inside the numbers.

How do you assess Schwarber in 2017? During the time of the year when he narrows his focus and becomes extremely calculating, Maddon started talking about Schwarber in terms of player development and the future, which didn’t exactly sound like a vote of confidence.

“Big bucket, everybody’s going to love this guy,” Maddon said. “And then I think the smaller buckets are going to get even more attractive. I do believe the more he plays in the years to come, you’re going to see the strikeouts come back down, a better adjustment when the count gets deeper.

“He’s already trying to choke up. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that from up top – he’s really trying to do different things in counts right now – and I’m starting to see some progress with that, too.

“But, God, the guy missed all of last season, and I still think that we all forget that sometimes. I thought he was a little bit better – when I first met him – at the ball with two strikes. I think that went away for a bit. Now I think he’s really trying to nurture that coming back.

“So I would say next year you’re going to see the same kind of power, but probably more contact when it’s needed. That’s the bucket he’s going to fall into.”

Coming off that dramatic World Series comeback, Schwarber fell into an offensive spiral that got him demoted to the minors three months ago. He’s still managed to blast 28 homers while striking out 31 percent of the time, struggling against left-handed pitching (.663 OPS) and batting .208 overall.

Schwarber also has the type of hard-charging personality that feeds off those doubts, loves the big-game pressure and creates energy for the rest of the team. There will be another chapter to his 2017.

“It is what it is,” Schwarber said. “That first whole part of the season was a wash for me. I was able to go down and just kind of get my head recollected and get some parts of my swing down.

“I can’t worry about the number up on the scoreboard. It’s just stupid to do that. So that’s all I’m worried about every time I go up to the plate – I want to put in a good team at-bat.”