Once one of baseball's most exciting players, Alfonso Soriano retires
Alfonso Soriano retired on Tuesday at the age of 38, bringing to an end a noteworthy career that included seven All-Star appearances, a 40/40 season, and 412 home runs. At his peak, Soriano possessed an elite combination of power and speed thanks to a lithe, muscular frame and quick wrists, prompting numerous comparisons to Hank Aaron. His early career path, meanwhile, made him something of a baseball Zelig, as he traveled from the Dominican Republic to Japan to the States. He also played a role in the creation of the posting system, was an integral part of one of the greatest World Series of all time, facilitated Alex Rodriguez's arrival in New York, and had arguably the first great season in the history of the Washington Nationals.
Soriano's route to the major leagues alone was fascinating. Born in the baseball hotbed of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic during the minor league career of his uncle Hilario, Soriano took to baseball early, but it was the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Japan's Central League who first discovered him. Soriano entered the team's Dominican academy at 18, played in the minor leagues in Japan at 20 and 21, and made his big league debut in 1997 as an injury replacement for the Carp, going 2-for-17 over nine games before being returned to the minors.
Soriano's stay in Nippon Professional Baseball was a short one. Denied both a raise and a fair arbitration hearing that winter (Soriano's agent, Don Nomura, who had helped Hideo Nomo jump to the United States in 1995, was barred from the hearing) and disenchanted by the relentless Japanese practice sessions, Soriano, under Nomura's guidance, followed Nomo's lead and retired, thereby becoming a free agent.
The Carp sent letters to all 30 MLB teams threatening to sue if they signed Soriano, while NPB claimed that it had closed the retirement loophole in the wake of Nomo's "retirement." MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, however, said he had never been consulted about the change and honored Soriano's free agency just as he had Nomo's. That led to a small bidding war over the talented young shortstop that netted Soriano a four-year, $3.1 million deal with the Yankees.
Soriano's jump to the majors, coming on the heels of the controversial sale of his soon-to-be-teammate and fellow Nomura client Hideki Irabu from the Chiba Lotte Marines to the San Diego Padres the previous winter, prompted NPB to redraft the United States-Japanese Player Contract Agreement originally agreed upon in 1967. The result was the creation of the modern posting system, which was agreed upon by NPB and MLB in December 1998.
Soriano's difficult free agency cost him the 1998 season, as he didn't sign with the Yankees until Sept. 29, but he entered his first professional season in the United States as one of the top prospects in baseball. He hit .305/.363/.501 in Double-A in 1999, earning a brief September call-up, and was rated the 16th-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America in 2000. But the presence of Derek Jeter and Chuck Knoblauch in the middle infield limited Soriano to brief major league opportunities, totaling 22 games. Knoblauch's throwing yips at second, however, became so extreme that season that he was limited to designated hitter and pinch-runner duties in the postseason. When the 2001 season began, Knoblauch was in leftfield and Soriano was the Yankees' second baseman.
Soriano hit 18 home runs and stole a career-high 43 bases in 2001, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2001 behind fellow Japanese import Ichiro Suzuki and Cleveland's CC Sabathia, but his biggest impact came in the postseason. In Game 4 of that year's American League Championship Series against Suzuki's 116-win Mariners, Soriano hit a walk-off home run off another Japanese import, Seattle closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, to give the Yankees a 3-1 lead in the series.
More heroics came in the World Series against the Diamondbacks. In Game 5, after Scott Brosius' home run handed Byung-Hyun Kim his second blown save in as many days, it was Soriano who capped the Yankees' comeback with a walkoff single that plated Knoblauch in the bottom of the 12th and gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the Series. Then, in Game 7, Soriano very nearly hit the championship-clinching home run, a leadoff blast off Curt Schilling in the eighth inning of that game that gave the Yankees the 2-1 lead that Mariano Rivera would shockingly blow in the bottom of the ninth.
In 2002, Soriano emerged as one of the game's true stars, hitting .300/.332/.547 and leading the majors in hits (209), runs scored (128) and the AL in stolen bases (41). He added 51 doubles and 102 RBI, and fell one home run short of the fourth 40/40 season in major league history. For that performance, he made his first All-Star team, won the Silver Slugger at second base, and finished third in the MVP voting, the best showing of his career.
Soriano had another outstanding season for the Yankees in 2003, but struggled in the postseason, and when the opportunity arose for the Yankees to acquire that year's AL MVP, Alex Rodriguez, from the Rangers, it was Soriano, along with minor league infielder Joaquin Arias (who has since emerged as a key part of the world champion Giants' bench), who was shipped to Texas to get the deal done.
Soriano's time in Texas marked a low spot in what was otherwise an impressive seven-year peak. It was revealed upon the completion of the trade that Soriano was actually two years older than his official baseball age, making him 28, not 26, and just six months younger than Rodriguez (note: the ages in this article are all based on his actual birth year of 1976), something both the Yankees and Rangers were aware of before the trade. Once in Texas, Soriano, as Rodriguez had before him, butted heads with manager Buck Showalter, resisting attempts by the team to move him off second base and bristling against being moved out of the leadoff spot, where he had hit in his best seasons with the Yankees.
Soriano hit just .234/.278/.409 outside of the Ballpark in Arlington in two seasons in Texas, and his play at second, which was never particularly good, declined dramatically in 2005. With his free agency just a year away, the Rangers flipped him to the Nationals, then coming off their first season in Washington, for a trio of players, including outfielder/first baseman Brad Wilkerson, whose career quickly went south in Texas, and minor league righthander Armando Galarraga.
In Washington, Soriano accepted his fate and moved to leftfield, where he enjoyed his finest major league season. Finally delivering on his 40/40 promise, Soriano hit .277/.351/.560 that year with a career-high 46 home runs and 41 stolen bases, becoming the fourth and still most recent player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a single season, joining Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, and Rodriguez. What's more, he proved to be an excellent leftfielder, leading major league outfielders with 22 assists, a feat he would repeat in 2007 with 19 (tied with Jeff Francoeur and Michael Cuddyer) before the league finally wised up and stopped running on his arm. That winter, he signed an eight-year, $136 million contract with the Cubs, which would take him through the end of his career.
Soriano had two more All-Star seasons with the Cubs before experiencing a sudden decline at the age of 33. From 2002 to 2008, his age-26 to -32 seasons, Soriano hit .285/.333/.531, good for a 120 OPS+, and averaged 36 home runs and 29 stolen bases a year, the latter coming at a strong 79-percent success rate. He made the All-Star team in all seven of those seasons, starting the game four times at two different positions, won four Silver Sluggers, and twice finished in the top six in the MVP voting (third in '02, sixth in '06, his lone season in Washington).
Over the final six seasons of his contract and career, however, he hit just .250/.303/.468, stole just 41 more bases and became as big a liability in left as he had been at second base in 2005. Per Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, Soriano was worth less than two wins over those six seasons combined after averaging nearly four per year during his seven-year peak.
Nonetheless, Soriano showed one last glimmer of his prime form at the plate after being traded back to the Yankees just before the 2013 trading deadline, slugging .525 with 17 home runs in 58 games over the remainder of that season. He finally washed out in 2014, with his career coming to an unofficial end when the Yankees released him in July. Soriano's career won't engender any serious Hall of Fame conversations, nor should it, but that long tail during which he was an overpaid relic masks just how compelling and exciting the first half of his career was.