MESA, Ariz. – Alfonso Soriano sat across from Javier Baez at a table in the middle of the clubhouse. It was the guy Cubs fans have been trying to trade for years eating lunch with the kid they can’t wait to see at Wrigley Field.
Soriano finished his sandwich, wiped the crumbs off his blue shirt and tossed the plate into a garbage can. A club official had asked him to sign some autographs. When he returned to his locker, he reclined in his chair and flipped through a clothing catalog.
The $136 million man chuckled and agreed that he probably didn’t need any more clothes.
No, Soriano hadn’t gotten a call from his agent or heard anything about a deal with the New York Yankees in the five days since Curtis Granderson fractured his forearm and Twitter went crazy with trade speculation.
Soriano – who has the hammer of no-trade rights – shrugged before Friday’s 6-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at HoHoKam Stadium. He looked at it the same way Matt Garza does: You only get worried when they stop mentioning your name.
Junior Lake had his headphones on and sat next to Soriano, whose locker borders the row that includes Starlin Castro, Jorge Soler and Baez. This is why Soriano has value beyond the 30-homers, 100-RBI potential.
“They have so much talent, man,” Soriano said. “It’s good for the organization they have prospects like that, because maybe in two, three years, they’re going to have a very good team.”
Of course, Soriano only has two more years left on his megadeal, but he isn’t writing off this season yet. He would like to see how it all comes together. There are times where he feels 37 years old, like when the kids ask him about stretching, pregame routines, how to get ready. But mostly he feeds off their energy and begins to feel young again.
Soriano thought back to 1999, when he showed up at the Yankees complex in Tampa, Fla. It was almost nothing like what Baez and Soler have encountered this spring at an off-the-radar camp with low expectations.
The year before, the Yankees had won 114 games and the first of what would be three straight World Series titles, and four championships in five seasons. This was a dynasty with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada.
“I said to myself, ‘Man, I have to work hard to be close to those guys,’” Soriano recalled. “That group was something else. To see those guys, how they work (when) they’re already in the big leagues. They’re famous and they have numbers and they’re working hard to make the team better and make themselves better.
“It’s not only like: ‘OK, I’m famous. I have the talent.’”
The future has been the dominant story in Mesa and sometimes it’s impossible to miss.
The day before, Soler had unleashed a strong throw from right field that nailed Josh Reddick when the Oakland A tried to go from first-to-third. That bailed out Scott Feldman, who had pitched for a Texas Rangers organization that won two American League pennants and a wild card across the past three seasons.
“It seems like they got some studs (here),” Feldman said. “That throw (Soler) made from right field was about as good of a throw as you could probably make. Reddick got thrown out there and he just had a look of shock on his face, like: ‘You’re not supposed to throw me out on that.’”
Soler drove a ball to deep left field on Friday and raced in for a stand-up triple. Soriano can act as a go-between when the coaching staff needs to say something to the Cuban defector, who had almost a two-year window without playing real games before signing his $30 million contract last summer.
“It’s a difficult situation,” Soriano said. “When I see him, it reminds me of when I came back from Japan my first year. I didn’t know how to speak English. Your first time in the United States is a little difficult, but I think he’s going to be OK.
“He’s going to feel more comfortable. (But) what he did on the field is amazing. He has so much talent.”
Manager Dale Sveum had watched video of Soler before the Cubs signed the five-tool outfielder. Sveum accessed more clips through the BATS system last season when Soler hit .299 with five homers and 25 RBI in 34 games split between the Arizona rookie league and Class-A Peoria. Seeing it in person, the 21-year-old is even more polished than advertised.
“He doesn’t just have a good arm, it’s very accurate,” Sveum said. “A lot of times you might have the arm, but it’s all over the place. But he’s got a pretty good feel of accuracy, throwing one-hoppers and that. It’s nice to see. Even his at-bats – I know he’s been striking out a little bit – but at least he’s seeing pitches and it’s not a premeditated-type swing.
“We know the bat speed. We know the hit-ability and the speed. (It’s seeing) how they react (to) game situations, what the instincts are like: Is this guy playing out of control? For a young guy, he doesn’t play out of control at all.”
Even if Soriano seems ambivalent at best about going back to New York at some point – and, really, in no rush to leave the Cubs at all – there are still the lessons he learned with the Yankees.
You play through pain. You take care of your body. You want to be in the lineup every day. You stand in front of your locker and take questions from the media, win or lose. You don’t just cash checks.
“They took care of me,” Soriano said. “I don’t like to treat the young guys bad, because that didn’t happen to me. It was totally (the opposite). They gave me confidence. They talked to me like, ‘Hey Sori, I want you doing good. I want you to be a part of the team.’ That made me feel like, ‘Man, those guys love me.’”
The Cubs can only hope that Soler, Baez, Lake and the rest of the kids are paying attention.