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Alfonso Soriano is Cubs’ best bet for cleanup spot

Cubs hitter Alfonso Soriano fouls off pitch as he bats 2nd inning as Chicago White Sox host Chicago Cubs game

Cubs hitter Alfonso Soriano fouls off a pitch as he bats in the 2nd inning as the Chicago White Sox host the Chicago Cubs in game three of the Crosstown Classic Wednesday June 22, 2011 at US Cellular Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 14, 2012 10:30AM

They shipped out troublesome former ace Carlos Zambrano, let top hitter Aramis Ramirez leave in free agency and decided against bringing back power hitter Carlos Pena.

So what do the Cubs do with the big-ticket holdover they couldn’t move this winter?

They bat Alfonso Soriano cleanup, of course.

This could be where the Cubs’ winter of disconnect-from-the-past takes them as the new front office heads to the Chicago Hilton and Towers this weekend to face the fans at Cubs Convention — just five weeks before spring training.

Nobody is saying it’s the preference, much less the ideal. Soriano hasn’t looked particularly good in a limited career sample batting fourth (.196 with two home runs in 14 starts there).

But take a look at the Cubs’ roster and consider the gaping hole in the cleanup spot left behind by Ramirez and Pena.

Then see how many other options are clearly better than the only player on the roster with more than 17 homers last year and the only one who has had a 25-homer or 90-RBI season in his career.

For all the talk and efforts to move some of the $54 million left on the final three years of Soriano’s contract, it’s not hard to imagine an even tougher scenario for scoring runs without him.

“He’s starting out as our left fielder, and he’s going to run into 25 to 35 home runs, hopefully on the upper end of that,’’ said manager Dale Sveum, who was reluctant to talk about lineup thoughts with almost three months left until Opening Day. “Sometimes you have to take guys out for defensive purposes, and I think he knows that.

“Sometimes people forget the guy hit 26 home runs and drove in almost 90 runs.’’

Soriano hit exclusively from fifth to seventh in Mike Quade’s lineup last year. A move to cleanup would bring Soriano nearly full circle since he signed the eight-year, $136 million deal to be Lou Piniella’s leadoff hitter and center fielder.

Soriano has been the most criticized and booed Cubs regular since then, but he also has been one of the team’s best power hitters, even through injuries.

Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo said that Soriano’s injury-free season a year ago and improved numbers have him thinking even bigger things for Soriano in 2012, despite the free-swinger turning 36 on Jan. 7.

“He gained some confidence that will help him become even better this year,’’ Jaramillo said. “And working on his two-strike approach and better on-base percentage, I think it’s a big year for him.’’

Sveum said he’ll start thinking more about lineups once he sees what his final roster looks like, not to mention what several of his hitters look like in spring training.

The way the roster has been built, the Cubs look more like a team that could field a handful of platoon ­positions.

But until, or unless, team president Theo Epstein finds a taker, Soriano will be an every-day player. Maybe even one of the more productive players the Cubs can count on this season, if he gets to Opening Day with the club.

“He’s a valuable offensive player, so it’s our responsibility as an organization to work with him and get the best out of him,’’ Epstein said recently, echoing comments he has made about Soriano since he took office.

“At some point in the future, if there’s a transaction that makes sense with any of our players that puts the Cubs in a better position moving forward, we are going to pursue it. But in respect to Alfonso, he has power and is an offensive contributor. We can work with him to get the best out of him and see where that takes us.’’

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