MESA, Ariz. – When he took over as Cubs manager last season, Dale Sveum knew the public’s perception – and one shared by many in baseball – of Alfonso Soriano wasn’t good.
In fact, it was awful.
He’s overpaid. He’s selfish. He’s unmotivated. He’s a defensive nightmare.
Sveum heard it all, but refused to listen. He wanted to see for himself, and wound up stunned that Soriano turned out to be dependable and driven – a model player and team leader.
“I’d seen him on the other side of the fence. I was completely blown away by the kind of person he is and the work ethic he puts in,” Sveum said Monday after the Cubs worked out under another chamber-of-commerce day of sunshine at Fitch Park, their spring training complex. “I rank him as one of the top five people I’ve ever been around in the game.”
Take that, all you Cubs fans who have booed Soriano, cursed him and wished he had never stepped inside Wrigley Field’s ivy-covered walls.
While the beloved Cubbies slogged through a deplorable 101-loss season in 2012, failing to show much, if any, progress under a revamped front office led by president Theo Epstein, Soriano soared.
The 36-year-old batted .262 with 32 homers and a career-high 108 RBIs. But beyond his offensive production, Soriano made significant improvements on defense, a turnaround he credits to hours working with Cubs coach Dave McKay, perhaps the first big league instructor to refine Soriano’s skillset.
Soriano played in 151 games, but at one point it appeared his days with the Cubs were over.
In July, he refused to accept a trade to the San Francisco Giants, a decision that ended up costing him a World Series ring. Looking back, Soriano doesn’t regret vetoing the deal, a choice he said was made because the Bay Area’s chilly weather would bother his knees and because he wants to win it all with the Cubs.
“I didn’t want to go to a place where I didn’t feel comfortable,” he said. “I’m very happy they won the World Series. ... But I believe in this team.”
It’s possible Soriano could find himself in trade discussions again, particularly if the Cubs start poorly. He said there are “six or seven” teams he would accept being traded to, but his preference would be to stay in Chicago, which signed him to an eight-year, $136 million contract before the 2007 season.
He knows turning down a trade could be tougher the next time.
He wants to win.
“You know, at my age, I don’t want to be a part of a losing team and I hope we start good and everybody stays healthy and we send a message because I believe in this team and the people that we got,” he said. “My point is that I signed here to win a World Series, and I don’t want to go somewhere else and win, but if we have a bad start I have to think about moving somewhere else because I only have two years left in my career.”
For now, Soriano is locked into left field with the Cubs, and they couldn’t be happier to have him.
General manager Jed Hoyer knows it’s possible trade talks could resurface in the months ahead.
“We’ve had a really good dialogue with Sori, and (agent) Pat Rooney whenever we’ve had those discussions,” Hoyer said. “It’s a good relationship. Right now we’re excited he’s in spring training with us. He looks great. We had a meeting with him yesterday and we emphasized with him how impressed we were with what we saw last year.
“We didn’t know the guy at all coming into camp. He’s a leader, a great example for the young players.”
Soriano spent the winter working out in the Dominican Republic, and he came to camp looking as physically fit as ever. During batting practice, he sprayed balls to all three fields and flexed his muscles by hitting a couple of crowd-pleasing homers.
After being with Soriano for one season, Sveum considers “him a friend now as much as someone I manage.” Soriano is one of those players who doesn’t need much supervision.
“He keeps himself in great shape,” Sveum said. “He works out constantly during the year and I think if he stays healthy, he’ll do just fine.”
Sveum understands there’s a lot more that can alter a team’s plans as much as wins and losses. There could be more trade talk surrounding Soriano in the weeks and months ahead, and if that’s the case, based on what happened last season, that might not be so bad.
“We need his 30 home runs and 108 RBIs in our lineup,” Sveum said. “Whatever happens on the business side, that’s part of baseball. It didn’t affect him too much last year.”
NOTES: RHP Jeff Samardzija was lucky to sidestep a wicked comebacker hit by INF Darwin Barney during live batting practice. “That was scary,” Barney said as he tucked hit bat into his carry bag. “I didn’t want to swing again.” ... The Cubs traded OF Tony Campana to Arizona for minor league RHPs Erick Leal and Jesus Castillo. Campana was designated for assignment on Feb. 10 and had been working out on his own. “I was paying to hit in a cage and paying for a gym for the last week,” Campana said. “I’m glad to be able to go hit and lift for free now.” ... For the second straight season, the Cubs are having a team-wide bunting competition during camp.