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Soriano’s second (base) thoughts

by Matt Smith

A recent article at the Hardball Times website once again brought up one of the most bizarre issues from the off-season. The Washington Nationals traded for second baseman Alfonso Soriano in December, with the intention of moving him to the outfield. As they already have a good second baseman in Jose Vidro, this is understandable from the team’s perspective.

However, as you will no doubt know, Soriano himself has other ideas. He has often been the subject of criticism due to his fielding displays, yet he has always been adamant that he sees himself as a major league second baseman, and would not consider a move to the outfield.

The situation is a product of the trading system in North American sports. Knowing the Nationals’ intentions, Soriano would clearly have never agreed to the move if he had had a say in the matter. But, of course, he didn’t. Soriano was not a free agent as he still has one year left on his current contract. This meant that the Texas Rangers were free to trade him away to whoever they chose, and Soriano himself would just have to pack his bags and get on with it.

Many people seem ready to castigate Soriano for his alleged selfishness. We can all sympathise with the idea of players needing to leave their egos to one side and to do what is best for the team. But is this argument valid in this case? Surely the blame lies solely with the Nationals (and in particular their GM Jim Bowden). By all accounts, Bowden made very little attempt to discuss the delicate issue of a position change with Soriano before the deal was completed. In some ways this is not such a surprise, as everyone knew exactly what he was going to say anyway. The rallying cries of “doing what’s best for the team” have been propagated by the Nationals themselves in an attempt to pressurise Soriano into going against his own wishes to make this ridiculous trade work.

Bowden’s responsibility as a GM is to take decisions in the best interests of his organisation. He has clearly failed to do so in this case. Signing an expensive player when they know he does not want to change positions is crazy. They also knew that by making this deal they would be putting a current player (Vidro) in a difficult position. So far they have avoided the issue as Soriano is away playing for the Dominican Republic in the WBC. Just letting it drag along like this does nobody any good. It seems as though the grand idea is to either use emotional blackmail to make it work, or to “hope” that Vidro’s recent injury problems return and second base is left open. That’s not much of a way to run a ballclub.

It is not Soriano’s responsibility to agree to the move. If the Nats wanted an outfielder then they should have signed one. It’s a bit like needing a right handed hitter, then signing a lefty and trying to make him switch to the other side of the plate “for the good of the team”.

Soriano’s aforementioned contract position has added more fuel to the “selfish” argument. He will be a free agent at the end of the 2006 season, and like any person he is looking towards his future. Soriano’s offensive production is more valuable as a second baseman than as an outfielder, so playing all season in the outfield could legitimately cost him millions of dollars when it comes to signing with a new team. Is protecting himself in this way really being selfish, especially when he had no say in the move?

His contract position makes the deal even crazier. The Nats will get one year out of him, and then he will be gone (he’s not going to re-sign with them, let’s face it). Now, if having Soriano was likely to push the Nationals into the play-offs this season, you could understand them taking this gamble. But even with Soriano, the height of their ambition is probably to finish at .500 again, with only the re-tooling Marlins beneath them in the National East division.

And how much is this mess is going to cost the Nationals? They have lost a solid outfielder in Brad Wilkerson who will probably cost over $6 million less than Soriano this season. Despite winning their arbitration case with Soriano, the Nationals are still going to have to pay him $10 million this season (Soriano wanted $12 million for his troubles)!

Some would say that for $10 million, Soriano should be prepared to do what he is told. Being paid $10 million to play left field in the majors isn’t exactly the most desperate of situations is it?! But this misses the point. The issue is not whether Soriano should be prepared to move positions, but why on earth the Nationals traded for a player who was going to cost them at least $10 million this season, who didn’t want to play in the outfield, and who is going to bring no long-term benefits, and a marginal short-term gain at best.

Every off-season there are deals that make you scratch your head. Yet this one takes some beating!

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