Utilizing Alfonso Soriano better, and lessoning his importance
This is my maiden voyage on blogging on this site, outside of a couple of comments occasionally, and a few random ideas I put in the shout box. Hopefully, my occasional rantings can create some good discussion points about some topics that possibly havent been discussed as much.
By the title of this posting, I assume many of you will assume that I am in favor of, like most Cub fans are, of moving Soriano down in the order to a more traditional RBI slot. While that idea admittedly does have some limited appeal for me, I basically differ from most of you when I tell you that I really like having him bat leadoff for us. His power potential for extra base hits and home runs changes how an opposing manager has to configure his bullpen late, and it gives our most dangerous hitter extra at bats in a game potentially. When you look at it like that, having Soriano bat 5 times in a game vs having a Ryan Theriot type bat 5 times seems like a very good idea.
Also keeping in mind that our bottom hitters in our 6-8 spots last year were among the best in the league, it is obvious to me at least that for an efficient offensive team that we will need an RBI producer to be batting in the 1 hole, so he can drive in some of those players on base at that time. This is emphasized often I know, but it is true: A "leadoff man" only actually bats leadoff once a game as a guarantee, at any other time we need everyone to be a run producer as often as can be.
So, therefore I agree with having Alfonso Soriano bat leadoff, as other players such as Rickey Henderson and Brian Downing have in the past although I realize those players were much more patient than Soriano is, and each had much higher OBP.
But, so often we seem to be a team that is completely dependent offensively on Soriano. When he is playing, our Cubs were the best team in baseball. When he was injured our out of the lineup, we were a mediocre team. Not only did we miss his power, we missed his explosiveness, and in reality were a much easier team for opposing managers to manage against.
Add to that fact that Soriano is a player who I think we all agree feasts against average to bad pitching, and who struggles against the premier pitchers in the league. Since all you see in the playoffs is big time pitching, Soriano will always likely struggle in those situations, at least on the whole. It isn't a matter of "choking" in his case, it is just in my judgment a lack of ability.....Soriano is what he is. And when your most critical player has a big flaw, it is no shock that your team might struggle.
And so, here was my conclusion watching the Cubs in the playoffs, and which has been in my mind since the season was over: The best answer to make us a better lineup isn't to REPLACE Soriano, it is to both make him MORE EFFICIENT, and LESS IMPORTANT to the overall success of the roster. But how could we do that?
I have a couple of ideas for us to discuss.
First, let's talk about making him more efficient. I mentioned above that we need a thumper at the top of the lineup who can drive in runs, because we have an unspectacular but efficient bottom of the lineup, which can often give alot of opportunities to drive in runs. What I think we can do to maximize the use of Soriano's power is to not discuss the top of the order so much, but to instead discuss the batting order at the bottom!
This idea may be counterintuitive, but I want to put a high on base pct player in the nine spot, right ahead of Soriano. In the national league, the nine spot is traditionally the pitchers spot. While we have decent hitting pitchers (Zembrano and Marquis come to mind), the still aren't as good as everyday players. Plus, late in games we are often using bench players in pinch hitting roles in this nine spot, who are often not that effective. This means that we usually have our worst hitters consistently batting right ahead of our best, most dangerous hitter arguably.
So, I think we can make Soriano more efficient, and perhaps can produce 10-15 more runs for the year if we bat our starting pitcher 8th instead of 9th. This isn't unprecedented....Ned Yost and Tony LaRussa each did this often last year, albeit for a different reason than I am proposing it for us.
Using Theriot for an example, how many more runs would Soriano drive in with Theriot batting in front of him? I would estimate that Soriano could get about 40 or so more runners on ahead of him for an entire season with a player with a .350 OBP batting in the 9th spot instead of a .200 or so OBP out of our 9 spot a year ago. Now, I realize that making this move also has other effects throughout the lineup, but I think in general that just making this simple little adjustment makes us about 10-15 runs better as a team. I'll be interested in seeing some of the smarter, more stat conscious posters opinions on this matter. I think it at least merits discussion and some analyzation.
The second step is to make Soriano LESS IMPORTANT to the overall offense. In other words, since he likely will slump in the playoffs again, we don't want to just be screwed when that happens. But how can we do that?
This means to me that we have to really really focus on getting a great OBP out of whomever we bat second, and we need to develop more speed so we can score in multiple ways. By adding speed, I do not mean stealing more bases necessarily, but I do mean that we need to develop an ability to hit and run more, and to run the bases better. We don't go from first to third enough on singles, and we don't score enough from second on singles. We are conservative, which is ok.....but we can improve in this area a little by adding a bit more speed and aggressiveness somewhere on our team, particularly on our bench. I think Joey Gathright was a good addition to our bench for that reason.
So, with Soriano leading off, what we really need to maximize our chances offensively is to put a very high quality hitter who can get on base a ton right behind him. Ideally, this guy bats left handed and also can improve our defense at some position too, and it would help us immensely if he could run the bases well and aggressively. On our current roster, this ideal player doesnt exist, unless Fukodome would happen to emerge. There is considerable doubt about whether that will happen, but it isn't out of the question. Evaluating our own players/roster correctly will be the most important task Jim Hendry faces this winter.
So, what I think we need is not necessarily a new leadoff guy....in fact, I believe moving Soriano would be a major mistake. But what we really need to do is to concentrate on adding a player who can bat SECOND (behind Soriano, in front of our sluggers), SEVENTH (we need a high OBP here to bat in front of the pitchers spot in my new batting order idea) and NINTH (we need a guy to get on base alot ahead of Soriano).
So, who is available who may fit those multiple criterias?
Well, there aren't very many (if any at all) perfect fits.....which I think more than the budget and ownership uncertainty is why we haven't done much yet. The perfect move isn't a clear one, especially in the shaky free agent world.
I'll have some suggestions on possible trade targets in my next blog post, but this first maiden voyage on goatriders.org is already too long. Hopefully, some of these rantings have made sense to you, and we can discuss them as smart baseball people and crazy cub fanatics.
As always, the above is just my opinion.