Soriano adjusting to new position
Outfielder learning rigorous demands of playing center field
MESA, Ariz. -- Alfonso Soriano was an early arrival in Cubs camp, and not because he wanted to start collecting his $136 million paycheck. He has a lot of work to do.
Soriano could be the Cubs' Opening Day center fielder but that's only if he can make the switch from left. It's not as simple as it might seem.
"It's going to take a special guy to become an accomplished center fielder this quickly," said Cubs coach Mike Quade, who was working with Soriano on Thursday at Fitch Park. "To me, the good news is he, without question, has the physical attributes to do that."
Soriano didn't have to report until Monday. But on Thursday, when pitchers and catchers were working on covering first base and bunting, Soriano was taking fly balls along with highly touted Minor Leaguers Felix Pie and Chris Walker.
"This is my first time here in Chicago and I wanted to start early," Soriano said. "It's something I like to do. I'm making some friends here early, too."
He'll be pretty popular with this kind of attitude.
"He's a humble kid and loves to play baseball," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "He wants to be ready when the season starts. He came in here and got a head start. It sends a good message."
Last season was Soriano's first in the outfield after spending his first five seasons as a second baseman. He led the National League in assists, but center is a different story.
"You have to consider the importance of that position -- the mindset of going from a corner guy when the center fielder is the captain to being the captain," Quade said. "There's a difference in angles, the communication responsibility, the footwork in center field is way more demanding than it is on the corners. I've had a lot of corner guys who were fantastic in left and right and their gait was too long or for whatever reason couldn't make the switch."
The Cubs originally projected Soriano would take over one of the corner outfield spots when he signed his mega deal in November. They promised the free agent he would lead off, and that he would be given one position. At the Cubs Convention, Soriano was asked where he'd like to play, and he said center. If he can make the switch, it would help the rest of the outfield alignment.
"I don't know what position I'm going to play here," Soriano said. "Whatever Lou says to me, I have no problem.
"Last year, I made the adjustment to play left field," he said. "This year, I think I can do the same to play another position."
The Washington Nationals moved him but Soriano made the switch to the outfield somewhat reluctantly in 2006. Now, he says he's finished playing second. Don't even think about that.
"Not second base any more," Soriano said. "I think I had a very good season and enjoyed myself in the outfield. Last year, I didn't want to play outfield because I didn't believe what I could do in the game. Now I believe what I can do in the game. It's now an easier job to play the outfield."
What he did was become the first player in Major League history with 40 doubles, 40 homers and 40 stolen bases in a single season. The slender right-handed hitter was the quickest to 40-40 homers and stolen bases in the Major Leagues, doing so in 147 games. He batted .277 overall, and did strike out 160 times, which would make him not appear to be well suited to the leadoff spot. That's where he wants to hit, and that's where the Cubs want him.
"I can steal bases," Soriano said. "I've got plenty of chances to steal bases. That's why I like batting leadoff."
Piniella just wants the 31-year-old outfielder happy.
"We'll see how he responds in center field," Piniella said. "We'll try him initially in center. We want to make him as comfortable as we possibly can both from a defensive and offensive posture. After we see him play, we'll have some definite ideas.
"I certainly don't want him worrying about his outfield play and having that affecting his offensive skills," Piniella said. "We'll play this by ear initially and see how it works out. It won't be too long in Spring Training before we make a decision."
"If you think about it, this is a special person," Quade said, "and that's the only kind of person who you could ask to do this. You think about all the good center fielders, and they've probably been playing there since Little League or high school. They weren't a second baseman until they were 28. All you can ask for is a guy to commit to the work it's going to take to see if he's going to do it, and we've got that. I'm excited just to spend the time to see."
A five-time All-Star, Soriano is probably his toughest critic.
"I don't feel like I'm a very good outfielder but I have to make a lot of adjustments," he said. "I don't feel like a 100 percent outfielder. I know I have to do a lot of work."
He bonded immediately with Pie on Thursday, and the younger outfielder helped Soriano find his way around the Fitch Park facility. Soriano has changed teams before, having played for the New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and the Nationals.
"The first time is a little difficult," he said. "The second time, the third time, it's easier because you're used to it. Everybody knows I'm coming here for one reason, because I love the team and I love the city."
He showed that love in December when he flew to Chicago to visit a hospital and donate gifts. He called it "the best thing I did in the winter."
His new contract puts him in an elite class. Only Alex Rodriguez ($252 million), Derek Jeter ($189 million), Manny Ramirez ($160 million) and Todd Helton ($141.5 million) have contracts with more guaranteed money. Barry Zito is right behind after signing a $126 million, seven-year deal with the San Francisco Giants.
"I'm not trying to be God here," Soriano said. "I'm going to be friends with the guys. I think everybody knows me. I don't think [his contract] will be a problem here."
Doesn't the large deal create more pressure?
"There's always pressure," Soriano said. "You have to play hard and do your job because they pay you money to do your job. They pay me money for something I love to do. I love playing baseball. I have to do my job to try to make people happy.
"I played in New York, I played in Texas, I played in Washington, now here," he said. "I'm the same guy. The money doesn't make a difference. I love the game."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.