Cubs say so long to Sosa

By Kevin Goldstein
February 2, 2005

In less than 12 months, Sammy Sosa went from one of the most popular athletes in Chicago history to one fans wanted to run out on a rail. This week, the Cubs paid for the train ticket and much more. After insisting for months that Chicago wouldn’t trade Sosa just to get rid of him, GM Jim Hendry did just that on Wednesday. He sent Sosa to the Orioles for Jerry Hairston, Triple-A second baseman Mike Fontenot and Double-A righty Dave Crouthers while picking up $16.15 million of the $25 million remaining on Sosa’s four-year, $72 million contract.

Sosa will make $17 million in salary this year, of which Chicago will pay $8.15 million. The Cubs also agreed to pay for a $3.5 million severance fee and a $4.5 million assignment bonus. Sosa agreed to give up an $18 million option for 2006 that was to automatically vest if he were traded, and the assignment bonus replaces the $4.5 million that would have been required to buy out that option. To take Sosa’s place, Chicago immediately signed free agent outfielder Jeromy Burnitz to a one-year contract worth $5 million.

Rather than repeat the 36-year-old Sosa’s well-publicized achievements on the field or the behavior that led to his banishment, we’ll take a look at his future. While an erosion of skills has devolved Sosa from a perennial MVP candidate to a one-dimensional slugger, he’s still a power threat who should benefit from the cozy confines of Camden Yards, as well as being able to stay fresh by filling in as a DH. Currently seventh on the career home run list with 574, Sosa needs just 13 home runs to pass Mark McGwire and Frank Robinson for fifth place, and just 26 to become the fifth player to reach 600. On a more ignominious note, Sosa is second on the all-time strikeout list with 2,110, 487 behind Reggie Jackson.

Hairston, 28, usually is a second baseman but played more in the outfield last year to accommodate Brian Roberts. He’ll probably do the same with the Cubs, deferring to Todd Walker at second base while seeing more playing time in left field. He played well in the outfield and hit a career-high .303/.378/.397 with two homers, 24 RBIs and 13 steals in 2004, but his season was limited to just 86 games due to a broken finger to start the year and a broken ankle to end it. This came on the heels of an equally injury-plagued 2003, in which he played just 58 games because of a broken foot. Hairston comes from impressive bloodlines. His brother Scott is the starting second baseman for the Diamondbacks; his father Jerry Sr. spent 14 seasons as a bench player for the White Sox; his uncle Johnny played briefly in the majors; and his grandfather Sam was a Negro League star and the first African-American to play for the White Sox. Hairston has plus speed and good patience, but the leadoff role on a contender may be a reach for a player with career averages of .261/.334/.371 and 26 homers, 160 RBIs and 94 steals in 530 career games.

Fontenot, 24, was a first-round pick out of Louisiana State in 2001. He hit .279/.346/.420 with eight homers, 49 RBIs and 14 steals in 136 games at Triple-A last year. He has surprising power for his small size (5-foot-9, 180 pounds), but achieves more when he focuses on making contact. Fontenot has proven he can hit with career averages of .288/.358/.420 in 384 games, but he was blocked in Baltimore by Roberts and is now blocked in Chicago by Walker. The Cubs also have a pair of good second-base prospects in Double-A Southern League MVP Richard Lewis and Eric Patterson, Corey’s little brother. Fontenot doesn’t have the range or arm strength to play enough positions to truly profile as a utilityman. He’ll start the year at Triple-A Iowa.

Crouthers, 25, was a two-way star at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville before signing as a third-round pick in 2001. He went 9-9, 5.05 last year at Double-A Bowie, raising his career record to 30-25, 4.07 with a 402-205 strikeout-walk ratio in 451 innings. His pure stuff ranked with the best in Baltimore’s farm system, as he has a low- to mid-90s fastball and a sharp slider. But he’s inconsistent with the quality of his pitches and his command, and he has a tendency to get too down on himself. He has worked with a sports psychologist to keep his emotions in check. He’ll most likely join Fontenot at Iowa, and though all 89 of his pro appearances have come as a starter, he may have a brighter future as a reliever.