Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Sori? ah, no

When the Washington Nationals dealt for Alfonso Soriano this past winter, they knew they were taking a chance. Washington already had an All-Star second baseman in Jose Vidro, who was healthy once again, and Soriano had refused to move to the outfield while he was with the Texas Rangers. GM Jim Bowden was hopeful that Soriano would use his contract year to play a decent left field and put up stellar offensive numbers. Soriano wasn’t in camp long before he reported to the Dominican Republic team for the WBC. He made it clear, though, that playing the outfield was not an option.

Monday night everything came to a head. Soriano, back from the WBC, was told by manager Frank Robinson to play left field in the Nationals Spring Training game. Soriano flat out refused. Now things are really getting ugly (Soriano is lucky that, even at his age, Frank Robinson didn’t knock him out). The Nationals are considering filing a grievance to put Soriano on the disqualified list. Translation: Soriano would be suspended without pay.

Both teams have a lot to lose in this mess. The Nationals gave up a hard-nosed player in Brad Wilkerson, a promising young outfielder in Termel Sledge, and a minor league pitcher. That’s a lot to give up for someone who won’t be playing. Soriano has plenty to lose, too. He’s in the final year of his contract and will be testing the free agent waters next winter. It’s hard to put up big numbers when you don’t play.

You can understand the position that each side is taking. Soriano feels his market value will be diminished by playing a position he’s not used to. The Nationals picked up an exciting player they thought could have a big impact on their lineup. Both sides made a big mistake and continue in their error-prone ways.

Soriano has to come to the realization that his offensive output will be the determining factor in how much cash he can pull in this winter. He’s committed to playing second base, but that may be borne out of a stubborn streak rather than a love for the position. Soriano came up as a shortstop, the dream position of every Dominican kid. When the Yankees called him up for brief stints in 1999 and 2000, Soriano played 23 games at third Base, 10 at shortstop, and only 1 game at second base. As a matter of fact, if not for Chuck Knoblauch, Soriano might have been an All-Star outfielder by now.

Knoblauch’s throwing problems were well documented when the Yankees came to camp in the Spring of 2001. The Yankees were giving Knobby one last shot to straighten out the mental block he had when throwing to first base. By late Spring, the Yankees had seen enough and decide to swap Knoblauch with the kid who was learning to play left field. That kid was Soriano. He had played well in the field and was ripping the cover off the ball when he came up to bat. Not quite a Wally Pipp-Lou Gehrig story, but that’s how Soriano got settled in at second base. Five years later, Soriano is quite possibly worse defensively than when he started out.

What Soriano needs to do is move to the outfield. His offense will already be hurt by playing in Washington’s spacious ballpark (maybe deep down that is really the crux of this issue), but combined with poor defense, you’ve got a free agent who can’t command top dollar. Soriano would also extend his career by playing the outfield. He wouldn’t have to worry about being blindsided by a runner looking to break up a double-play. He’s got the speed and arm to play the outfield - now he just needs to show the maturity to do it. It’s possible that Soriano’s agent, Diego Bentz, is behind a lot of this. But, it’s time for Soriano to stand up for himself. Everyone says he’s a good kid; right now he’s not showing it.

Jim Bowden was a decent GM when he ran the Cincinnati Reds ball club. He’s been less than that in running the Nationals operation. He gets some leeway for taking over a team in complete disarray, without a permanent home or an owner without the initials M.L.B. That said, he has made a number of terrible signings and trades as the Nationals GM. This may be the topper. Bowden already knew that Soriano had steadfastly refused to make the position switch while playing for Buck Showalter, and that wasn’t even in a contract year. Bowden made the deal anyway - a huge mistake for the amount of talent given up. He should have insisted on a 24-48 hour window to talk to Soriano prior to making the deal. Had Soriano still held out during that time, Bowden could have called the deal off. Bowden now needs to start shopping Soriano around to save face and get some talent back.

There are other teams that could use his offense and would be willing to put up with his shoddy defense. Soriano will be making a hefty sum,10 million dollars, but just for this year. So, the Nats may not even have to throw money into the deal. Teams like Baltimore, who is concerned about the health of Brian Roberts’ elbow and has plenty of young pitching to spare, and others like Minnesota, who is still short on bats, surely must have interest. Any team picking up Soriano could spit him right back out at the trade deadline - thereby getting some prospects and saving some cash.

All of these suggestions are rational, which is why, of course, none of them will probably happen. Yes, in baseball in Spring, hope springs eternal - but not everywhere.

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