By Jack Moore
A commitment to winning, and $136 million over eight years: According to Alfonso Soriano, it was the former that brought him to the North Side of Chicago in 2007.
"I had offers from seven or eight teams, but the determination the Cubs showed to win the World Series was what really influenced my final decision," Soriano told Dominican radio station Rumba 98.5. "Cubs fans deserve a winner and the team is working to make that happen soon, and I want to be a part of it."
Six years later, Soriano's time in Wrigleyville is nearing its end, in true Cubs fashion, without a championship. The Yankees and Cubs are progressing toward a trade to send Soriano to the Bronx. At least one report says "nothing is imminent" -- but it's a move that makes too much sense for a beat-up Yankees team that has hit all of three right-handed home runs in two months.
The Soriano contract will go down as one of the most foolhardy decisions in a long history of poorly constructed Cubs deals. It defines the Jim Hendry era, a time when the Cubs' process amounted to throwing money and prospects at all their problems. Soriano was merely the biggest example against a laundry list of mistake signings, re-signings and acquisitions, including but not limited to Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Marmol, Milton Bradley, Kosuke Fukudome and Jason Marquis.
The funny thing is, it almost worked.
Jim Hendry was on the hot seat heading into 2007, as the Cubs swiftly slid back into irrelevance in the three years after the Bartman Cubs nearly found their way back to the World Series. An 88-win team in 2003 became a 66-win team by 2006. Dusty Baker was fired, and Hendry was given money and an ultimatum: Win, or get out.
Nobody thought Alfonso Soriano was going to be worth $18 million this year or next year, when he will be 38 years old. I don't think Hendry thought he'd be worth it. But he saw a chance at competing for a year or two behind Soriano, Marquis, Ted Lilly, Mark DeRosa and a host of veterans. And if the plan failed? Well, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, in the long run we're all fired.
His veterans did just that, as the Cubs overtook another weak NL Central to win the division crown in 2007 and destroyed the National League in 2008, as they won an NL-best 97 games, their best season since Phil Cavarretta, Peanuts Lowrey, Hank Wyse and the goat-cursed 1945 National League Champions.
Soriano was a huge part of both those teams. He hit 62 home runs and stole 38 bases, hit .291/.340/.547 (121 OPS+) and posted a ridiculous 29 outfield assists as the Cubs' left fielder, before base coaches and baserunners around the league realized his arm was not to be tested. Only Jeff Francouer and Nick Markakis completed more outfield assists over those two seasons.
But both those teams were swept out of the NLDS, by the Diamondbacks in 2007 and the Dodgers in 2008. The 2008 loss was particularly awful; Soriano's .344 OBP was the lowest of any Cubs hitter with more than 250 plate appearances, and only one pitcher with more than 45 innings pitched posted a below-average ERA. The team played as well as -- if not better than -- its 97-64 record all year long, but the Cubs were swatted aside by a Dodger team that squeaked into the playoffs with 84 wins.
"To bust it for six months and win 97 games and have so many good moments, for it to end like this is wrong," infielder Mark DeRosa said at the time.
"As I slumped over the bar with one eye on the TV and the other on my drink, I surely looked as if I had been hit by a bus, beaten repeatedly with a tire iron, kicked in the stomach, doused with beer and punched in the teeth for good measure," William Wagner wrote for SI.com.
Even NPR got in on the action, calling the Dodgers the "inevitable iceberg" to the Cubs' Titanic. But the best line to come out of the loss was from Alfonso Soriano, who cut straight to the core of the Cubs condition when asked what he would tell the fans:
Patience would be necessary, and it was easy to see it coming. Cubs hitters averaged 29.9 years of age in 2009, fifth-oldest in the league. Of the six players making $10 million or more, five were 31 or older. The other was Carlos Zambrano. Seven more players at least 30 years old made seven figures. The only 20-something beyond Zambrano earning a significant salary was Rich Harden.
Hendry bought himself a few years with those 2007 and 2008 runs, even without playoff success, but the philosophy didn't change. The Cubs kept on making short-run attempts to win the elusive championship. With the players who powered the division title runs sliding down the wrong side of the aging curve, the returns were smaller and smaller as the years went on. It started with Harden, who was acquired for, among others, Josh Donaldson, who is hitting .299/.366/.500 as the Athletics' third baseman over the past calendar year.
There was the acquisition of Kevin Gregg and his $4.2 million dollar contract, which bought the Cubs seven blown saves and a 4.72 ERA in 2009. After two years of mediocrity in Wrigley Field, Jason Marquis was an All-Star after the Cubs sent him to Colorado for Luis Vizcaino, who earned $3.5 million just to get released by May 3. Xavier Nady earned $3.3 million for a .660 OPS in 2010. They paid $7 million for a middling year from Milton Bradley and then traded him for $16 million of complete putridness from Carlos Silva the next two years.
It was a parade of awful veterans, unbolstered by support from the farm system. Soriano was the constant, and he slipped hard as his mid-30s approached. He hit just .241/.303/.423 (84 OPS+) in and missed 45 games for the second straight year in 2009. He's posted an OPS+ over 100 for the last four years, at least, but his declining speed has turned his defense from passable to putrid.
Matt Garza was the rare veteran who did perform for Hendry's Cubs. He posted a 3.45 ERA (115 ERA+) in his 60-game Cubs career, which ended Monday with a trade to Texas for Justin Grimm, Mike Olt, C.J. Edwards and a player or players to be named later -- a significant package of minor league talent.
In Garza, the contrast between Hendry and the new Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein-led Cubs is stark. Hendry acquired Garza from the Rays for an arguably superior talent package -- Chris Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, Brandon Guyer, Sam Fuld, and Robinson Chirinos, four of whom have reached the majors in Tampa Bay. The Cubs had finished 75-87 in 2010 and again had an average age nearing 30 years old. Players like Derrek Lee were leaving and others, like Ryan Dempster and Aramis Ramirez, were aging fast. The 2011 Cubs went 71-91 despite a 3.32 ERA over 31 starts from Garza.
That proved to be Hendry's final stand, as the club's new owner, Tom Ricketts, fired him in August of 2011. Make no mistake, the process Hoyer and Epstein are undergoing is more likely to bring a World Series through a steady collection of young talent and real assets than Hendry's slapdash veteran collecting. This year's club sits at just 44-53, but trades and other forward-looking moves like the Garza deal have boosted the stock of the farm system. Additionally, with Soriano on the way out, the club's only eight-figure commitment will soon belong to Edwin Jackson. The Cubs will be able to throw their financial weight around again, something the Dodgers have shown is a dangerous prospect for competitors.
But how much can you really blame Hendry for signings like the Soriano contract in 2007? Ownership put him in a corner with its demands of immediate winning from a losing position, and to Hendry's credit, the next two years -- particularly 2008 -- put the Cubs as close to a championship as any year in the recent past. It was never a philosophy built for long-term success, and the Cubs paid for it in 2009 and beyond, but for Hendry, it was better than the alternative -- if there even was an alternative.
Cubs fans, of course, can do little but heed Soriano's call for patience. Luckily, ownership is finally heeding those words as well. The Hoyer/Epstein approach will take time, and there will be more losing before a World Series trophy ever comes to Wrigley Field. But with Garza gone, and Soriano nearly gone, the Cubs are closer to winning the World Series today than they were yesterday. After 104 years and change, that should be solace enough for now.
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Jack Moore's sports addiction was a lost cause from the moment his older brother mowed a makeshift baseball diamond into his backyard. Now he writes about sports wherever the web will have him. Right now, you can catch him at CBSSports.com, FanGraphs, Advanced NFL Stats, Bucky's 5th Quarter,DisciplesOfUecker.com, RotoWire.com and on Twitter (@jh_moore).