It's a question the Cubs don't like being asked, mostly because they can't provide an answer.
What are they going to do with Alfonso Soriano for the next five seasons?
The Cubs have tolerated his poor defense in left field because Soriano is supposed to produce at the plate.
But now his offensive production has dropped to the defensive levels that saw him drop this key fly ball in Cincinnati on Sunday and misplay another two against Milwaukee on Wednesday.
Soriano's value to the team has plummeted so much that the Cubs are [already] yanking him late in games for a defensive replacement and manager Lou Piniella has decided to consider all five of his outfielders when configuring his daily lineup.
He's under contract at $18 million a season until 2014. He is Oscar Madison to the Cubs' Felix Unger. They're stuck with each other and driving each other crazy.
So what are the Cubs' options, other than petitioning the league for a 26-man roster?
Brown then explains that the Cubs don't really have any viable options. I see two, though: Release Soriano, or trade him for some other team's disastrous contract. But a trade's not likely, simply because there aren't many (any?) contracts out there that look quite as bad as Soriano's (not with Barry Zito climbing back to respectability). I think there's a 50/50 chance that Soriano will simply be released before his contract expires, and perhaps well before then.
Today, it's easy to rip the Cubs for committing $136 million to Soriano three-and-a-half years ago. But things are always easy in retrospect. I wondered what I wrote at the time. Honestly, I had no idea. I can't remember what I wrote last week, let alone more than three years ago. On the rare occasions when I do look back, I look back with trepidation because most of the time I'm a little embarrassed by my former self's lack of grace and intelligence.
Not this time, though. A few weeks after Soriano signed, I wrote a column (remember those?) about a bunch of big free-agent contracts, closing with this list of four outfielders who got huge deals:
Is Carlos Lee really worth $100 million over the next six years? Before you answer, a few facts: 1) Lee's career slugging percentage is .495, and before this season he'd never hit more than 32 homers in one season; 2) he's an awful defensive outfielder; 3) he'll be 31 next June. The Astros will, I think, regret this one. And Lee's got a full no-trade clause in his contract, through the 2010 season.
Is Alfonso Soriano really worth $136 million over the next eight years? Sure, if he averages 40 home runs per season. He's topped 40 homers exactly once in his career – 2006, of course – and his .325 career on-base percentage is nine points lower than the National League's OBP in 2006.
Is Juan Pierre worth $44 million over the next five seasons? He's not an outstanding defender, he's got no power and he's led the National League in caught stealing in each of the last four seasons. He does rack up the base hits … but if he doesn't bat .300 and draw 50 walks, he's not much of hitter. If you know what I mean.
Is Gary Matthews Jr. really worth $50 million over the next five years? That depends mostly on whether the real Gary Matthews is the one who played well in 2004 and 2006, or the one who played poorly in 2003 and 2005. Of course the real Gary Matthews is both of those characters, and we would expect him to establish a level of performance somewhere between those good/bad versions. Throw in his solid defense in center field, and $10 million per season doesn't seem too bad, right?
Wrong. Matthews is 32. If he's like most 32-year-old players, his best days are behind him (and his best days really weren't all that good, 2006 notwithstanding). While he projects as a pretty good player in 2007, within three or four seasons, he'll be merely average, maybe a bit worse. And suddenly the Angels will find themselves spending $12 million on a player who's little better than some kid in Triple-A who would earn 1/20th of Matthews' salary. Mind you, we're talking about a team that's already been burned badly on one of these deals; the Angels still owe Garret Anderson $26 million over the next two seasons (including a sure-to-be-exercised buyout of their 2009 option).
The problem with these long-term deals isn't the money, per se. The problem, as we've seen so many times, is that the big years and the big dollars leave teams with little flexibility when things change. And a lot of things are going to change between now and 2010.
I wish my batting average was always this good. And a lot of things have changed since November, 2006. Here's another bit about the big contracts, same column:
Don't worry, though; the sky is not falling. Salaries are going up, but that's nothing new. For a few decades now, salaries have increased by roughly 10 percent per season. It has not been a linear progression, of course; sometimes they go up two percent, and sometimes they go up 20 percent. But the trend is ever-upward, which won't change unless the U.S. suffers an economic collapse. And it's completely natural.
For a while, I was doing that all the time, dropping oblique references to economic disaster into my columns and chats. A few of my friends noticed, and wondered why I was harboring such dark thoughts. I think they thought I might be just a bit daft. Pixilated, even.
Well, now you know. Four years ago, I was worried about three things: the exploding national debt (check), the insanity of the real estate market (check), and peak oil (not yet).
A lot of stuff -- whether it's irrational exuberance about housing prices or Alfonso Soriano's OBP-challenged career path -- is just sitting there, for anyone to see. The tricky part is looking.