- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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MESA, Ariz. -- Alfonso Soriano would give anything, including some of his $136 million contract, if you could guarantee him what he hasn't had as a Chicago Cub.
That's it. Just 162 games in which something doesn't ache, tear, strain, sprain or break. Guarantee him that and Soriano will cut the check right now. He's got the money. What he doesn't have is one Cubs season without a trip to the disabled list.
Sitting on a padded metal stool in front of his locker, Soriano needs only a moment to remember the last time he began a season without pain.
"It was 2006," he said.
Unfortunately for the Cubs, that was the season before he signed that 8-year, $136 million, free-agent deal to come to Chicago. The acquisition made some sense at the time, but the bloated contract now mocks the franchise as Soriano's production and durability continue to shrivel.
The DL checklist:
• Arthroscopic knee surgery in 2009.
• A broken bone in his hand and a calf strain in 2008.
• A hamstring strain followed later by a quadriceps strain in 2007.
The injured quad transformed Soriano from a greyhound on the basepaths to a mutt. It robbed Soriano, seemingly for good, of his difference-making speed.
"That changed him," said Cubs general manager Jim Hendry of the quad strain.
Soriano is now a $19 million-per-season shadow of his 2006 self, when he hit a career-high 46 home runs, stole 41 bases and played a career-best 159 games. Since joining the Cubs, his games played have gone from 135 to 109 to 117. He's set to miss the team's first two spring training games.
He can still hit, sometimes, but he can no longer run like Soriano circa '06. From 41 stolen bases in 2006 to just nine in 2009.
His days as a leadoff hitter feasting on fastballs are also done. Soriano will bat sixth in the 2010 Cubs' lineup.
"A good RBI spot," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella.
Soriano will return to left field, where he'll play on 34-year-old knees and legs that can't be pushed to the max anymore. At times it will look as if he's jaking it, but the simple, sobering baseball truth is that Soriano had a gear removed from his clutch.
This is the new reality for Soriano and the Cubs. So no wonder he says he would trade some of those millions to get his health back.
"Oh, definitely," he said. "If you're not healthy, I cannot do [anything]. When I'm healthy, I know I can be happy. I know I can enjoy myself and have fun.
"If I'm 100 percent with no pain, I think I can give you a lot of good moments and do good things for the team."
I show Soriano's 2009 numbers to a major league scout. Says the scout:
"He hit .241 -- geezus. He had 20 home runs and 55 RBIs in 447 at-bats. That is not even close to average. That's terrible. He had 118 strikeouts and 40 walks. Terrible."
In other words, the Cubs paid $850,000 per Soriano dinger last year. Worse yet, he hit 12 of those homers in his first 35 games, then only eight in his final 82 games.
Soriano was a defensive liability. He couldn't steal. His on-base percentage from the leadoff spot was a gruesome .295. He got hurt again.
And by the way, there are five years left on his deal at $19 mil per year.
But as Soriano's metrics track downward, his optimism tracks up. You can rip Soriano for his declining numbers, but he remains respected within the Cubs' clubhouse and organization because he doesn't phone it in.
When he says he would trade money for health, he means it. When he says he signed with the Cubs because he wanted to win a championship, no one doubts him. He is aware of his declining stats and of the boos often aimed his way at Wrigley Field.
"It's tough," he said. "[The fans] just think about what kind of money we make. But they don't know physically how it feels, what the sacrifices we have to do to play this game.
"Yeah, I hear [the boos], but I [don't] pay attention because that doesn't make me better."
And this from Hendry: "He's a lot better teammate and a more caring guy than you'd realize from his image. He really does give a damn -- and his teammates will tell you that."
Unlike Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano, whose knucklehead moments could take up 8 gigs on your hard drive, Soriano keeps a lower profile. He is a proud man embarrassed by the recent numbers on the back of his baseball card.
Ask Soriano whether Cubs fans have ever seen him at his best and he shakes his head.
"No, they not see it," he said. "Like I said, I played three years with injuries."
I've been a Soriano critic in the past because of his insistence that he hit leadoff, and a Piniella critic because he kept putting Soriano in the No. 1 spot. But to Piniella's credit, he finally pulled the plug this past July 4 -- Cubs' leadoff Independence Day.
Now Soriano knows his place in the lineup and his role in the offense. No amount of lobbying is going to change it. And to Soriano's credit, he's been receptive to the repair work new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo has done on his swing mechanics.
"We got to get that 20 [home runs] into the 30s, and those [55 RBIs] into the 80s," Piniella said. "Those would be a nice goal for him. He should be able to do that."
If the Cubs want to do better than the disappointing 83 games they won a season ago and end their 102-year World Series winless streak, they need Soriano. The 2006 version of Soriano would be nice, but that guy is gone.
"I don't like to think about numbers," Soriano said. "I just like to think about being healthy, be 100 percent and play 150 games, 162 games. I know if I can play healthy, I can put up some very good numbers."
Did he say 162 games? Where do the Cubs sign that deal?
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
11mMichael C. Wright