News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 21, 2007

Given to Fly: Piniella has it right; Soriano should stay at top of order

By Craig Pearson

TERRE HAUTE — Manager Lou Piniella recently experimented with moving Chicago Cubs hitter Alfonso Soriano down to fifth in the lineup, hoping to spark his team’s struggles to produce against left-handed pitching.

Soriano went 0-for-8 with three strikeouts. By the way, his career numbers are basically the same against right-handed and left-handed pitching — .283 against right-handers and .279 against left-handers.

Not a fan of the results, Piniella said the experiment is finished.

“We tried it,” Piniella said in Friday’s Chicago-Sun Times. “But I’m going to leave Soriano in the one hole. That’s where the young man belongs.”

As soon as the Cubs signed Soriano, critics have popped up trying to move Soriano into the middle of the Cubs order because of his home-run power.

Soriano has hit in the lead-off spot in 2,591 of his 4,622 career plate appearances, and the 31-year-old should stay there.

While Ryan Theriot — the Cubs shortstop for the next 10 years and potentially the lead-off man in a few years — is on pace to steal more than 30 bases and can be a spark at the top of the lineup, Soriano is more comfortable leading off. As the cliché goes, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

Easily the best player on the Washington Nationals last season, Soriano was moved from lead-off to third for 18 games during the 2006 season. The results: a .152 average (11-for-72) with four of his hits being home runs.

The Texas Rangers were more adventuresome with the Cubs’ left fielder, batting him in the three hole in 115 games during the 2004 season. Soriano hit 22 homers and collected 77 RBIs, while hitting .328 (148-450). With 200 more at-bats at that pace in the three spot, Soriano would have reached 32 homers and 112 RBIs. Those are obviously good RBI numbers but they could be better with his ability.

In May of this year, when the Cubs were without Derrek Lee due to injury, Alfonso Soriano batted third, saying he would do whatever was best for the team.

During that seven-game span in the three hole, Soriano’s average fell from .312 to .288 as he went 5-for-29 with one RBI.

You might argue that the Cubs’ best power hitter — Soriano’s 16 home runs are tied for the team lead with Aramis Ramirez — is a streaky hitter and he just got caught in a dry spell.

But there’s more to it.

At this point in his career, batting him in the three hole is out of the question because he’s not going to have the stolen base opportunities. Soriano stole just 18 bases during the 2004 season with Texas.

The five hole makes some sense — especially against southpaws as Piniella explained last week — but Soriano tends to put too much pressure on himself in RBI situations.

The career .282 hitter has shown he can come up with clutch hits, he’s a career .255 hitter with runners-in-scoring position and with any runner on base he’s hit .268. Plus, his strikeout numbers are high — 917 career strikeouts to 246 walks.

I’d rather have a guy who’s prone to strike out up more often with nobody on base.

Plus, his on-base-percentage, which is the most important number for a lead-off man, is .327 throughout his career and .343 when batting leadoff. The man typically thought of as the best lead-off hitter of all-time, Rickey Henderson, had an OBP of .401 for his career. Another great base stealer and lead-off man in history, Lou Brock, had a career OBP of .343.

With a strong core of veterans that can relax now that they’re complemented by a group of confident young players led by Theriot, Soriano might be better suited for a middle-of-the-order spot in a few years as his speed dwindles.

But for the time being, leaving Soriano as the table setter is the “solution” to what many call a dilemma.



Tribune-Star sports reporter Craig Pearson can be reached by e-mail at craig.pearson@tribstar.com.