It will be strange not chasing Alfonso Soriano rumors this winter.
No more guessing which teams are not on the no-trade list (or if an approved list even exists). No more back-of-the-envelope calculations of how much the Cubs would have to pay to close the deal. No more geography lessons or San Francisco weather updates. No more wondering if they’ve had The Talk.
It’s hard to believe that Wednesday marked seven years since Soriano signed that eight-year, $136 million contract. It was Tribune Co.’s win-one-for-the-Tower indulgence before putting the team up for sale on Opening Day 2007.
The Cubs aren’t going to respond to another last-place finish with a similar spending spree. There won’t be the kind of bombshell dropped on Nov. 20, 2006.
There’s always the initial sticker shock: Busted PED user Marlon Byrd to the Philadelphia Phillies for two years, $16 million and a vesting option? At age 36? Really?
But if this is going to be another offseason of runaway inflation, the New York Yankees will definitely be getting their money’s worth in 2014, paying Soriano around $5 million after a 34-homer, 101-RBI season.
There was an end-of-an-era feel when Cubs president Theo Epstein pulled Soriano from the lineup on July 25. After an emotional goodbye inside Chase Field’s visiting clubhouse, Soriano boarded a red-eye flight in Phoenix.
The deal went through over the objections of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who had to answer to managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner and didn’t want to give up Class-A pitcher Corey Black.
“I knew he had a full no-trade and I knew he wanted to go back to New York,” Cashman explained last week during the GM meetings in Orlando, Fla. “I was on record saying he was the best bat we could get, but I thought I could squeeze Theo for less of a prospect and drag it out.
“But my owners said: ‘No, let’s just get it done now.’ Because we negotiated for a couple weeks before and the asks were higher and I was like: ‘Give me a little more time, I think I can whittle it down more.’
“Hal said: ‘No, get it done now. This is final.’”
Energized by a playoff race, Soriano got hot again, generating 17 homers and 50 RBI in 58 games for The Bronx Bombers.
Black, a 22-year-old right-hander, went 4-0 with a 2.88 ERA in five starts for advanced Class-A Daytona, helping the affiliate win a Florida State League championship.
“He’s got a good arm, he really does,” Cashman said. “We had him starting, but we think he has a chance to be a power arm in the bullpen, so you’ll get something for that.”
That’s where the Cubs are at as an organization, flipping assets and trying to collect enough prospects that some of them eventually hit. Soriano watched the evolution, winning back-to-back division titles before the financial reckoning.
After a series of leg injuries, Soriano was never again the 40/40 force from that 2006 platform season with the Washington Nationals. But he always wanted to be in the lineup and never really let the criticism bother him.
The perception changed over time, though Soriano prided himself on being the same guy with the big smile every day. A lightning rod for the fans’ frustrations became recognized for his clubhouse leadership. He invited rookie shortstop Starlin Castro to stay at his place in 2010 and translated last spring for a coach who needed to get a point across to $30 million Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler.
Here’s a sign of respect: One night in September, after a win over the Cincinnati Reds, Welington Castillo and Junior Lake stopped on the way to their lockers and stood in the middle of Great American Ball Park’s visiting clubhouse.
Just out of the showers and still wearing towels, they stared at a TV screen and watched Yankee highlights on ESPN. They started cheering, mimicking Soriano’s home-run swing and pose.
“Everybody loves that guy, especially us,” Castillo said. “I just wish him the best. He’s like our dad. I’m really happy for him.”
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Seven years is a long time inside the fishbowl. What sort of reception will Cubs fans give Soriano when the Yankees come to Wrigley Field in 2014?
“He’s a guy that would go every day and play hard,” Castillo said. “That guy put up his numbers every year and he’s a winner. He cares about the team. I think the crowd is going to take care of him.”