SAN FRANCISCO – Theo Epstein didn’t look for the symbolism in life after Alfonso Soriano. This was another business transaction for the Cubs president.
Soriano became Tribune Co.’s big-ticket item in a huge spending spree after a last-place finish in 2006 – and before putting the team up for sale on Opening Day 2007. The Cubs won two straight division titles before the reckoning.
If Soriano represented the old way of doing business, then the Cubs closed a deal on Friday that again sketched out their new economy. By convincing Soriano to waive his no-trade rights and return to the New York Yankees, they saved $6.8 million on the nearly $25 million he’s owed through 2014.
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They picked up a power arm with 100 mph velocity to throw into the pool of prospects at advanced Class-A Daytona, with Epstein comparing 21-year-old Corey Black to White Sox reliever Jesse Crain. They cleared space in the outfield for Junior Lake and David DeJesus (if he’s not traded) and Ryan Sweeney and Brian Bogusevic (when they’re healthy).
“I don’t look at this as a watershed moment or a transformative moment at all,” Epstein said. “It’s simply this was the right time for 'Sori' to move on and open up some at-bats.
“We’re in this position where we’re trying to turn some shorter-term assets into some longer-term assets, trying to turn some older players into some younger players, trying to give some opportunities to guys (so they have) a chance to establish themselves. That’s a big part of why this move was made.”
The Cubs have operated like a mid-market team since the Ricketts family bought the club – as well as a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago – in a highly leveraged $845 million deal in October 2009. A $500 million Wrigley Field renovation/hotel project and new television deals are supposed to be the game-changers.
But after two winters spent focusing on mid-level value signings, it’s unclear how close Epstein’s front office is to going all-in with another nine-figure megadeal.
“I’m of the belief that you’re never one player away,” Epstein said, “that if you think you’re one player away, you’re getting desperate and you’re asking for trouble. The single biggest factor in whether or not you have a chance to legitimately contend is the overall health of the organization.
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“Over time, (that) will manifest itself at the big-league level with a little bit of patience. So we’re focused on building a healthy, effective organization with a robust farm system, getting those players through the farm system to the big-league level and gaining competiveness that way, rather than chasing one player who might make a difference now.
“Looking ahead, I think we will acquire impact players through free agency. We’re just not going to build our plans around that. We’ll know when the time is right, when the fit is right, when the player is right, when the value is right, when the impact of the player is profound for our ballclub. I wouldn’t rule anything out as far as impact free-agent acquisitions. But right now our focus is on building the health of this organization.”
That’s what made a 37-year-old outfielder on a fourth-place team such an awkward fit, even though he was the most popular and respected guy in the room.
“When I came here, for some reason, I was under the impression that he would be a negative in the clubhouse,” Epstein said. “Someone who was out for himself and someone who didn’t play the game hard all the time. I was quickly disavowed of that notion.”
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In the first meeting with Soriano, the new regime laid out the expectations for the $136 million man.
“We simply asked him (to) work on his defense,” Epstein said. “We asked him to run the bases hard. We asked him to run balls out. We asked him to be a good example for younger players. We asked him to always play the game hard and to try to win the fans back over and be a leader in the clubhouse.
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“He said: ‘OK.’ And he went out and did it. It was remarkable to watch him rehabilitate his reputation.”
Dave McKay coached up Soriano in left field, manager Dale Sveum showed him the proper respect as a middle-of-the-order hitter and prospects like Jorge Soler and Javier Baez listened to him in spring training.
That huge contract didn’t change Soriano as much as the perception shifted. But there easily could have been another backlash, more tension as an organization looking at 2015 and beyond turned a seven-time All-Star into a platoon player.
“There might have been a time in the next 14 months when we might not have had everyday at-bats for him,” Epstein said, “or we needed to give at-bats to a younger player or a lesser player and that’s always a really difficult transition for an elite player, a superstar player in the final (stages) of his career.
“With him moving on now, he really leaves at the right time with his head held high.”