Commentary

Don't expect bounce-back from Soriano

He's still plenty talented, but he's not the same player physically as in years past

Updated: February 26, 2010, 5:21 PM ET
By Stephania Bell | ESPN.com

For the past three years, Alfonso Soriano has just not lived up to fantasy baseball expectations, yet each year those expectations have continued to be lofty -- until now.

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In the world of fantasy baseball, where preseason rankings can significantly influence draft selection and dollar values for marquee players, the prospect of Soriano having another 40-homer, 40-steal season -- his first and only 40/40 season came in 2006 -- has made him an expensive addition to any league. But not this year; Soriano is being regarded as a risky prospect, both in rankings and early mock drafts.

Why the sudden change? The simple answer is a lack of production. Soriano's numbers in 2009 were the worst of his career and the culmination of a progressive decline in home runs and stolen bases. Take a closer look, however, and the more complex answer may lie in a different statistic: at-bats.

Soriano had nearly 30 percent fewer at-bats in 2008 and 2009 than in his stellar 2006 season, and as the saying goes, you can't win if you don't play. Injuries, it seems, are at the heart of Soriano's recent downfall. While he hasn't suffered anything catastrophic, along the lines of an ACL or UCL (ulnar collateral ligament, aka "Tommy John" ligament) tear, the cumulative toll of Soriano's ailments is an example of the sum being greater than its parts.

Let's take a look at Soriano's injury history since his storied 2006 season (specific injuries in italics):

2007: In April, Soriano strained his left hamstring. It was originally reported to be a mild strain, and he didn't miss many games because of it, but in June he was still saying his leg did not feel 100 percent. In August, Soriano strained his right quadriceps, an injury severe enough to show a defect in the muscle itself on MRI. The injury forced Soriano onto the disabled list and ended his season prematurely.

2008: Eight months after his right quad injury, Soriano acknowledged that he did not believe he was 100 percent recovered but did indicate he was finally feeling normal running the bases again. His comments at the time suggested that although the muscle had technically healed, he was still apprehensive about re-injury, particularly when running at full speed.

The apprehension might have been well-founded, but not necessarily because of the quad. Soriano went on to tear his right calf muscle in mid-April, just after the start of the 2008 season. The injury forced him onto the disabled list for the second time in less than a year. Although Soriano returned from the DL when eligible, his baserunning seemed hesitant and less explosive after he returned. Nonetheless, he was elected to the 2008 National League All-Star team.

As luck (more specifically, bad luck) would have it, Soriano was forced to be a spectator at the All-Star Game because of yet another injury: a fractured fourth metacarpal (long bone of the hand below the finger), which placed him on the DL once again. Soriano would miss a full six weeks while the bone healed, but if there was a silver lining in the cloud hanging over Soriano's season, it was that the extended rest for his fractured hand gave Soriano's calf additional recovery time, too.

In all, Soriano missed more than 50 games in 2008 as a result of his injuries … yet still managed to hit 29 homers and steal 19 bases. His per-game homers and steals rates restored his fantasy value heading into 2009.

Soriano
Jeff Curry/US PresswireAlfonso Soriano has had a painful past couple of seasons.

2009: Initially, it seemed 2009 would be the year for Soriano to prove he still had "it." Despite myriad injuries in 2007 and 2008, Soriano was able to put up prorated numbers suggesting that if he could stay healthy, a repeat of 2006 might be possible.

In fact, when Soriano arrived at spring training last year, he said he felt better physically than he had in years past. He had spent one month at the team's academy in the Dominican Republic over the winter, doing some additional work. According to the Cubs' official Web site, that was the first time he had devoted that much additional time to hitting and running in the offseason.

For his part, Soriano indicated that the extra work had helped his preseason fitness: "Every year I get injured in my legs. I started one month before spring training [this year]. I feel very good right now; my leg has no pain, it's not sore at all." It certainly sounded promising, and Soriano followed it by hitting .288 with five homers and two steals in his first 12 games of the season.

But that all changed April 22. Soriano banged his left knee on the outfield wall at Wrigley Field while chasing down a fly ball. Later in the season Soriano admitted that his knee continued to cause him pain while running, and that it also felt "constantly weak." When your game is partially based on speed, these are not good symptoms to have. While Soriano had avoided the muscle-strain type of injuries that had plagued him in the two previous seasons, he could not avoid injury altogether. Chronic nagging symptoms in the knee eventually led Soriano to have the knee scoped in September.

While Soriano is technically healthy right now, this key question remains: What can fantasy owners expect from him in 2010 in terms of productivity … which really translates, to some degree, to "How healthy can Soriano be this year?"

It's a fair question, since his age (34) and recent injury history are not ideal when it comes to projecting his future health. While being hit by a pitch seems more like bad luck, Soriano's leg injuries seem to be a sign of progressive breakdown. Although speedsters tend to be in great shape physically, they also are more prone to injuries, especially in terms of muscle strains.

Soft-tissue injuries such as muscle strains certainly can impact a speed player such as Soriano, not only when they first occur, but potentially long-term as well. Formation of excess scar tissue post-injury, a lack of flexibility, decreased strength and power, compensations by other muscle groups … all are possible consequences of such injury. These outcomes can ultimately prevent a player from achieving his full potential, particularly in the areas of speed and power. Those struggles can lead to a mental hesitation to trust in one's body, which in turn can lead to less aggressive play or, ultimately, further injury as a result of placing demands on the body that exceeds physical capacity.

Soriano certainly looks like he still has "it." When I spoke to him at the All-Star media day in 2008, I saw a fit, youthful Soriano, a player who seemed eager to share how the forced time off because of his broken hand was actually helping the health of his legs. He was confident about his ability to come back stronger and faster. But the next season saw him again struggle with injury.

This year Soriano will be coming off the arthroscopic knee procedure and a subsequent rehab program designed to promote his all-around strength, hopefully preventing a repeat of previous seasons. But he reported to spring training Monday and announced that he is not yet recovered from offseason surgery. As Soriano told Bruce Levine of ESPNChicago.com, "I don't feel 100 percent because I'm not running 100 percent," and while he denies having any pain, he has yet to fully test his knee. Certainly he has much to prove, and a lengthy injury résumé justifiably makes potential fantasy owners nervous.

While there is no reason to think Soriano couldn't have the bounce-back season he's no doubt hoping for, his recent injuries and age make that far from a guarantee.

Stephania Bell is a physical therapist who is a Board Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. She is a clinician, author and teacher with extensive experience in the area of orthopedic manual therapy and sports medicine.

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