Unlikely hero to rescue

With Yankees desperate for power, and dogged by Rodriguez mess, Soriano provides stability

Cubs manager Dale Sveum on post-Soriano plans.

As Alex Rodriguez combusts in a fiery ball of bad feelings, the Yankees have turned to Alfonso Soriano to save their season.

You can't make this stuff up.

Amazingly, perhaps sickeningly if you have that old-fashioned anti-Yankees bias, there's a chance that the strategy could work, not just in 2013 but next year as well. It would be an escape worthy of David Blaine if Brian Cashman, Randy Levine and the Steinbrenner brothers can pull it off.

On one hand, the Yankees are desperate, reuniting with Soriano at a time when they had hit four home runs in 19 games. On the other, they are brilliant. The Cubs will pay so much of Soriano's 2014 salary that he will be a $5 million guy on their tax rolls next year.

On one hand, the Yankees are cunning, hoping that Major League Baseball will hit Rodriguez with a lifetime ban in the Biogenesis case, potentially saving them the $98 million or so they still owe him. On the other, they knew who they were dealing with when they signed that 10-year, $275 million contract with him after the 2007 season, when he had used an opt-out clause in his previous contract.

No matter how clownish Rodriguez appears seeking his own diagnoses and doing his own public relations, no matter how quickly Rodriguez is becoming like Albert Belle and Bo Jackson in terms of his health, you cannot feel sorry for the Yankees.

They had a chance to close the door on Rodriguez when he was 31, four seasons after they had gotten him in a deal that sent Soriano to Texas. But it hadn't yet been revealed that Rodriguez had a positive test during that supposedly anonymous round of PED testing in 2003, so they could hope blindly that the most selfish player in the majors had just hit 54 home runs and driven in 156 runs without any unnatural help.

Their perspective was colored by not having won the World Series in seven years. They knew their best chance to win one was to keep Rodriguez hitting behind Derek Jeter and an emerging Robinson Cano, so they crossed their fingers and signed the deal, just as they did when they loaded Jeter full of painkillers last October.

Whatever anyone thinks of Rodriguez, he paid off on his end of the bargain when he helped the Yankees beat the Phillies in the 2009 World Series after they missed the playoffs in '08. He certainly has created his own problems since firing agent Scott Boras and going from one adviser to another, beginning with Madonna's people, but his deal runs through 2017.

It seems too convenient to get him off the books early, whether through an insurance settlement or a lifetime ban. The latter is possible given the seriousness with which MLB views his possible tampering with evidence and witnesses in the Biogenesis case.

The Yankees are committed to keeping their 2014 payroll under $189 million, which will give them a fresh start under MLB's luxury tax structure. They have been taxed at 50 percent on spending beyond the threshold, as a repeat offender, but could go down to 17.5 percent after the reset.

Getting Soriano at a huge discount, as they did Vernon Wells earlier in the year, will help the Yankees re-sign Cano — if not also Curtis Granderson — and have a shot to stay under the threshold next season. But the only reason fans will welcome back Soriano is if he hits, and there's no reason he shouldn't.

Soriano's .927 OPS for July ranks 30th in the majors among players with 70-plus plate appearances, ahead of every Yankee except Cano (1.037). Manager Joe Girardi says he will move Soriano between left field and designated hitter, and pitchers from the Red Sox, Orioles and Rays will have to respect him.

He will help. The big impact, however, will come if they can get the Rodriguez contract off the books and start reconstructing their ancient roster. Win or lose, it's the feel-bad story of the season.

Slippery slope: It's easy to understand why Matt Kemp would suggest Ryan Braun should be stripped of his 2011 MVP award. But neither MLB nor the Baseball Writers Association of America has shown a desire to revisit awards won by players who subsequently were linked to steroid use.

Kemp said he was disappointed when Braun's negotiated suspension was announced Monday.

"I don't like to get lied to," said Kemp, who finished second to Braun in the 2011 vote. "I don't think anybody likes to get lied to. I think a lot of other people feel the same way. I'm not the only one in that boat. I'm just another one of those guys on the list who are disappointed in what has come about in the last couple of days."

Beginning with the late Ken Caminiti in 1996, 21 of the last 68 MVP and Cy Young awards have gone to players who have been linked to PED use or strongly suspected of being users. Would it be fair to strip Braun and not give the 2000 MVP to Frank Thomas instead of Jason Giambi? It seems awfully difficult to draw that line.

Up next: Braun's suspension has put the Rangers and Tigers on notice. They cannot count on having Nelson Cruz and Jhonny Peralta with them for their playoff push and, without a terrific resolution to the case for them, could be missing those important players in the postseason.

At some point soon, MLB will go to the players union with the list of players facing suspensions from Biogenesis (most likely 12 to 15 players, including minor leaguers). The length of suspensions essentially will be negotiated, and players will have to decide whether to begin serving the suspensions immediately, as Braun did, or delay them on appeal (and probably risk longer suspensions).

Officials with the Rangers and Tigers insist they have been kept in the dark on the process, but they should be lining up options to replace their guys. Cruz and Peralta will be free agents after the season, so it's asking a lot to expect them to appeal the suspensions so they can remain on the field. That would leave them still facing suspensions while lining up contracts, a very tricky business.

One option, which seems more viable for the Rangers than the Tigers, is to sign the players to contract extensions with the understanding that a 2013 suspension would be appealed, leaving it most likely to be served next season.

But the Tigers don't want to tie themselves to Peralta, believing they need a better defensive shortstop for the long haul. They could be a fit if the White Sox offload Alexei Ramirez, who reportedly is a consideration for the Cardinals.

The Rangers signed Manny Ramirez to a minor league contract when he returned from a short stint in Taiwan. But scouts who have seen him with Triple-A Round Rock question if he has the bat speed to hit big-league pitching.

Holding their breath: Jason Grilli might be replaceable as the Pirates' closer, but the 36-year-old first-time All-Star represents the spiritual center of his team. That's why so many teammates are worried about the extent of the strained right forearm that forced him out of Monday's game.

Grilli was found to have a strained flexor tendon, which could keep him out a month or more. That diagnosis doesn't sound horrible, but strained forearms have a way of turning into torn tendons, leading to Tommy John surgery. To see Grilli's remarkable season end early would be a horrible blow for baseball's most inspired contender.

Mark Melancon provides manager Clint Hurdle a solid option in the ninth inning. Not only is the bullpen plenty deep in front of Melancon, but there's time left for general manager Neal Huntington to add an arm. But Grilli is the key foundation piece for the pitching staff. Lots of fingers are crossed for a healthy return. He has a chance to be the first Pirate since Dave Giusti in 1971 to lead the NL in saves.

Hard work: George Brett's decision to return to an advisory role with the Royals demonstrates how remarkable it is that fellow Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg has spent the last seven seasons as a minor league manager and big-league coach, with the dream of managing in the majors.

Brett spent eight weeks as one of two hitting coaches on Ned Yost's staff but stepped away Thursday.

"It was a tough decision,'' Brett said. "I enjoyed it. … It was just time for me to sit with Dayton (Moore, the Royals' GM) in the suite again rather than travel around the country and do what I was doing."

Any job in uniform is highly demanding, and there's not much financial motivation for many former players to stay involved. Here's hoping the Phillies reward Sandberg for the sacrifices he's making. Jim Hendry and Theo Epstein decided against taking chances on him.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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