By adding Soriano, expectations rise for Cubs

Forget -- if it's possible -- the enormous contract given by the Chicago Cubs to Alfonso Soriano. Don't think about what kind of player Soriano is going to be at age 38, in the final years of his seven-year deal with the Cubs.

Because that's not the issue.

Instead, think about the impact Soriano can have on the Cubs in the next few seasons.

Soriano is a marvelous offensive player, who can deliver both power and speed, as his recent performance suggests. Over his last two seasons, he's averaged 41 homers and 35 stolen bases. That kind of combination in today's game isn't merely rare; it's almost unprecedented.

In four of his last five seasons Soriano has scored more than 100 runs and, in hitting 24 homers at Washington's RFK Stadium last year, provided evidence that few ballparks will limit his power. Certainly, the Friendly Confines will only enhance his home run output.

For someone who will average $17 million over the next seven seasons, Soriano is, admittedly, a limited player. While he played a competent left field last year for the Nationals, he won't make an impact defensively and almost certainly never will return to the infield. Though he has terrific speed, he's not athletic enough to handle center field and replace Juan Pierre. And for a top-of-the-order player, he can be impatient at the plate (.325 lifetime OBP) with a strikeout rate (160 last year in 647 at-bats) that can be alarming.

But Soriano rates as the hottest offseason position player acquisition because of what his signing means to the Cubs and their legion of ever-patient fans. In outbidding all other suitors, Cubs ownership made a statement that winning matters. In signing Soriano -- as well as Aramis Ramirez, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis -- the Cubs sent a strong signal that it will not be business as usual.

Soriano was the loudest signal of all. Just 31 and still in the prime of his career, Soriano is the type of offensive player who can effect the NL Central race. True, the Cubs' success will again be determined by their pitching and dependent on Mark Prior's and Kerry Wood's being healthy again.

But the division is wide open. The Cardinals have been decimated by losses to their starting rotation and the Astros have also been weakened. It won't take much for the Cubs to inject themselves into the race.

Soriano can provide the necessary offensive jolt -- in the batter's box and on the base paths -- to make the lineup hum. He can't do it alone, of course. But even before he plays a game, his signing speaks volumes.

The next five
1. Gary Sheffield: At age 38, coming off major wrist surgery, Sheffield is a gamble. But assuming he still has a measure of his unmatched bat speed, he could be the perfect addition to the Tigers lineup. Good as they were last year in winning the American League pennant, the Tigers lacked that certain presence in the middle of the lineup. Reunited with a manager whom he likes, expect big things for Sheffield in his comeback season.

2. Frank Thomas: There might not have been a more feared hitter in the second half of last season than Thomas, who carried the A's into the postseason. In Toronto, surrounded by a far better lineup of hitters (Troy Glaus, Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay) than he had in Oakland, Thomas will see far better pitches and boost the Jays at a position that featured little power for them last year.

3. Carlos Lee: Lee gives the Astros another run-producing bat to team with Lance Berkman. It was somewhat ominous that Lee hit just nine homers in 59 games with Texas after the trade from Milwaukee, but in returning to the NL Central, where he enjoyed his best production, Lee is likely to flourish.

4. Moises Alou: This wasn't about the long-term for the Mets. They signed the 40-year-old, injury-plagued Alou to a one-year deal for the now and did so wisely. Last year, Alou had a .923 OPS for the Giants. He doesn't have to be the Mets' big bat -- Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Jose Reyes make up the meat of the order -- but if he gives them 130 or so games in left field, he'll make their batting order that much deeper.

5. Akinori Iwamura: Not the most famous or expensive Japanese import of the offseason, but perhaps the best bargain. Iwamura gives the Devil Rays versatility -- he can play third base or second -- and a patient bat at the top of the lineup. Not bad for a modest investment.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.