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Can a healthy Soriano still carry the Cubs with his bat?
By Bruce Miles | Daily Herald Staff

Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano lunges to make a catch on a fly ball hit by Omar Visquel of the White Sox earlier this spring in Mesa, Ariz.

 

Associated Press

Alfonso Soriano hits a double during the second inning a spring training game against Milwaukee on March 9.

 

Associated Press

With his knee surgery behind him, outfielder Alfonso Soriano could be 100 percent healthy when the regular season starts.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 3/15/2010 12:20 PM

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Maybe Alfonso Soriano shouldn't wear uniform No. 12.

Maybe he should wear "8 years, $136 million" on his back.

It seems that no conversation about the Cubs left fielder is complete without reference to Soriano's contract, which enters its fourth season this year.

That's not Soriano's fault. Blame upper management in place during the long and painful dying days of Tribune Co. ownership of the Cubs.

Like it or not, Soriano is here to stay for a long time yet. While some fans cringe at that prospect, Soriano still is capable of carrying a ballclub for stretches up to a month at a time.

There are so, so many questions surrounding Soriano. Let's get to them.

What's the deal on his health? Much was made of Soriano reporting to spring training at "85 percent" after last fall's knee surgery. Soriano actually said in February that he hadn't pushed the knee to 100 percent yet.

There's reason to worry only if Soriano isn't feeling close to 100 percent by the time the Cubs break camp.

Can he stay healthy? Nobody knows. Soriano's games-played total has gone from 159 in 2006, while he was with Washington, to 135, 109 and 117, respectively, in his three seasons as a Cub.

Nagging leg injuries have been the biggest problem, and there was nothing he could do about a broken hand, suffered in 2008, when he was hit by a pitch.

Is he a good guy in the clubhouse? Among the best. Any comparisons to Sammy Sosa, another high-priced superstar, are way off base.

Soriano comes to the park with a smile on his face every day. He works hard and is popular with his teammates.

Will he ever learn plate discipline? That's unlikely at this stage of his career and at age 34.

According to figures at the stats-oriented Web site fangraphs.com, Soriano last year swung at 37 pitches outside of the strike zone, with the major-league average at 25 percent.

He also swung at 72.2 pitches within the zone, also above average.

Will a new hitting coach help? The Cubs are banking on it. Soriano is reunited with new batting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who tutored Soriano at Texas in 2004 and 2005.

Jaramillo speaks English and Spanish, and he seems to have developed a good rapport with players who feel more comfortable conversing in Spanish.

Beyond the obvious, what are some key stats? Again according to fangraphs.com, Soriano's home-run-to-flyball ratio fell from 17.1 in 2008 to 11.5 in 2009. Perhaps Soriano's knee, which bothered him since April, affected his power.

Along these lines, another interesting stat is "isolated power," or ISO, which essentially is slugging percentage minus batting average. It tells you about the extra-base production of a player.

Soriano's ISO was .261 in 2007 and .252 in 2008. That figure fell all the way to .182 last season.

His line-drive percentage was down about 5 percent last year, and his groundball percentage was up about the same amount.

Will the Cubs move him to second base? No. Soriano was moved from second base to left field several years ago because of problems playing second.

On top of that, the Cubs don't want to risk any more damage to Soriano's legs by exposing him to double-play situations.

Who can give him a breather now and then? Don't count out Tyler Colvin, the No. 1 pick of 2006, who put on 25 solid pounds over the winter and is off to a flying start in the Cactus League.

Even if Colvin starts the season at Class AAA Iowa, he's only a phone call away. Left field might be a good place to spot Xavier Nady until his surgically repaired right elbow is fully healed.

Sam Fuld is battling to stick. Jim Adduci, who played well last year at Class AA Tennessee, earned a spot on the 40-man roster, and he's getting a long look.

NL's best

Where we rank the top left fielders

1. Matt Holliday, Cardinals

2. Ryan Braun, Brewers

3. Raul Ibanez, Phillies

12. ALFONSO SORIANO, CUBS