alfonso soriano hittingComing off a banner year, and entering the 2013 season carrying a big salary with a team that does not project to be competitive, it’s fair to wonder why Alfonso Soriano is still on the Chicago Cubs.

There has to be some measure of interest out there, and his no-trade rights aren’t going to completely preclude a trade. So, what gives?

Well, for a while now it has seemed clear that the reason Soriano is still with the Cubs is because the Cubs believe he has genuine value – both to the team as constructed, and in trade, if it should come to that. There are reasons to believe that the aforementioned banner year wasn’t a fluke (instead, it was probably a reflection of his true ability right now, when healthy). So why wouldn’t the Cubs be hesitant to part with Soriano, even if they were desperately looking to dump him for anything just one year ago?

Indeed, as Nick Cafardo reports, that’s precisely what’s going on. From Cafardo:

During his time in Chicago, Theo Epstein has come to realize what a tremendous teammate Soriano is and how willing he is to help younger players. Epstein considers Soriano an excellent clubhouse presence, and after a 32-homer, 108-RBI season, the Cubs president contends that he will need a player of note in return if he is to trade Soriano and assume a majority of the $36 million left on his contract. Soriano will only accept a deal to an East Coast team, so the Phillies, Rays, Orioles, Yankees, and Marlins are teams that could benefit by him.

A player of note.

Translated: the Cubs aren’t “dumping” Soriano this time around. They recognize he has value, and could hold onto him into the 2013 season if they don’t get an acceptable offer in the next two months. They would then get the benefit of seeing what’s what with this 2013 Cubs team (enormous surprises do happen), and/or shopping him again at the trade deadline. So, Epstein and Jed Hoyer are asking for quite a bit in return for Soriano right now.

The natural question, though … setting aside that backdrop, and what your gut tells you about Soriano’s value, is he really worth “a player of note” when considering the outfield market?

This is an important question, given that Soriano would not be valued and traded in a vacuum. It’s easy to say that Soriano, if the Cubs eat some of his salary, is worth a quality prospect or a young pitcher, but if there were 50 other Sorianos on the market at the same price, we could hardly make that claim, right?

Presently, the free agent outfield market is thin. It was, perhaps, the most plentiful free agent group of of the various positions when the offseason began, but signings have thinned the herd, and only a small handful of reasonable options remain. When it comes to a reliable power bat, in fact, there’s probably only one free agent option remaining: Scott Hairston. Delmon Young could arguably fall into that category as well, but his off-the-field issues and on-field defensive woes probably place him a rung below Hairston, particularly on the reliability/predictability scale.

On the trade front, of the players who could reasonably play an outfield spot (most think Michael Morse is a 1B/DH at this point), Jason Kubel and Justin Upton are probably the best power bat types available, together with Soriano. Because Upton is in a different tier from Kubel and Soriano, his availability probably doesn’t impact the market for Soriano too greatly (that is to say, if a team is going to go after Upton, the availability of Soriano isn’t going to give them pause). So, for the most part, Kubel is the guy whose availability could drive down the price in trade for Soriano.

That is all to say, in the Cubs’ efforts to trade Soriano, the availability of a comparable free agent – Hairston – and a comparable trade candidate – Kubel – must be considered. Soriano is the oldest of the three, having just turned 37. Kubel is just 30 (turns 31 in May), and Hairston is just 32 (he actually turns 33 on the very same day in May). Soriano’s contract situation is also the least enviable – while he makes $36 million over the next two seasons, Kubel makes just $7.5 million in 2013 and $7.5 million in 2014 (or a $1 million buyout). Hairston comes at a free agent’s price, which could be in the same range as Kubel – let’s say $16 million over two years.

Although the Cubs cannot account for the age difference, they can do something about the contract. Indeed, it’s been reported that they are willing to eat all but $10 million of his contract in the right trade, making Soriano a mere $5 million per year player – a bargain considering his expected production.

What about that production?

The three actually had strikingly similar slash lines in 2012, with Soriano going .262/.322/.499, Kubel going .253/.327/.506, and Hairston going .263/.299/.504. Soriano put his line up over more plate appearances (615) than Kubel (571) and, in particular, Hairston (398), who saw a disproportionate amount of his time against lefties. In total, Soriano’s offensive production was probably just a touch better than Kubel’s, and a fair bit better than Hairston’s.

Given the ages of each of the players, it should be no surprise that Bill James projects Soriano’s line to fall to .245/.304/.462 next year, while Kubel’s falls slightly less (.259/.333/.465). Hairston is projected at .250/.307/.444 in a part-time role. Here, the box checks for Kubel, but only a touch ahead of Soriano.

Of course, offensive production doesn’t tell the whole story – if it did, Soriano wouldn’t have a 4.0 WAR in 2012, as compared to Kubel’s (1.9) and Hairston’s (2.0) more modest sums. The primary difference, together with a little bit of base running, is defense. Defensive metrics are imperfect, though they tend to be pretty good at spotting trends. In Soriano’s case, he’s been an above-average outfielder (in some years, waaaaay above average) every single season but one since he converted to the outfield back in 2006. In 2012, he was one of the best defensive left fielders in baseball, according to FanGraphs.

Kubel, on the other hand, has been a below average defensive player every single year of his career. Hairston, who does offer the versatility to play all over the outfield, has been below average each of the last three years. I know it is difficult to accept, but Soriano’s strong defensive ability (particularly when he’s feeling healthy) sets him far, far apart from guys like Kubel and Hairston.

Then, of course, there are the intangibles, to which I won’t speak at length, because I know very little about Kubel or Hairston. What I do know is that Soriano is roundly considering one of the hardest working, best teammates in the game, and is the kind of veteran presence any playoff contender should want to have. (That would include the Cubs if they had actual playoff aspirations in 2013.) I suppose I can add here that Kubel bats lefty, which could be a distinguishing point for teams that prefer a righty bat in the middle of their otherwise very left-handed lineup (like the Phillies, for example).

At bottom, then, should a team be willing to give up “a player of note” for two years of Soriano at $5 million when they could have Kubel in a similar trade or Hairston for $16 million over two years?

Actually, yes.

His contract price would be cheaper, and he offers more overall value than either Kubel or Hairston. Further, if the Diamondbacks wind up trading Justin Upton, they might keep Kubel. And reports suggest Hairston would prefer to stay in New York. Thus, a handful of teams looking for offense in the outfield or at a DH spot – the Phillies, the Orioles, and the Rays come to mind – may soon have little other option than to part with “a player of note” for Soriano.

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