Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Come on, Sori, You're Better Than That

The Day of Reckoning for Soriano was going to come sooner or later. After all, the Dominicans couldn’t stay in the WBC forever. Just prior to his departure, Soriano spoke of his situation, saying the Nationals "have three weeks to fix it." Three weeks later, and the Nats are still firm in their stance that Soriano will play left field or not play at all.

Nats GM Jim Bowden is handling this situation in all-star fashion, taking hard lines, making the team’s position clear, and letting everyone know that the Washington Nationals, not Alfonso Soriano, will dictate the outcome of this situation. Here are a few excerpts from Bowden’s press endeavors:

"The player refused to take the field, which we believe is a violation of his contract.”

"He's going to play left field. He needs to be out there now the next couple of weeks to play, and if he's not going to play for us, we need to know so we can go forward."

"We told him if we get to Thursday, and he refuses to play left field, we told him at that point we will request that the commissioner's office place him on the disqualified list, at that time -- no pay, no service time."

"If he refuses to play and goes home, and the commissioner's office accepts our request to place him on the disqualified list, then at that point, if he were to sit out this year, he would not be a free agent, he would stay our property because his service time would stay the same."

While I fully laud Bowden’s efforts to rectify this situation, I have to take a step back and look at the other side of the argument. Soriano has never been a reliable second baseman, and there have been perpetual talks of moving him to the outfield, at which he has balked each time. So why would the Nationals deal for him, knowing his steadfast stance on the issue? Furthermore, why would they give up Brad Wilkerson to do so? It may even seem like Bowden brought this misery upon himself by consummating this transaction.

I don’t see it that way, however. This deal made perfect sense from Washington’s standpoint. The package was Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge, and a minor-league pitcher to be named later, so let’s start with that. Sledge turned 29 on Saturday, and has been little more than a career minor-leaguer to this point. He was semi-impressive in his stint with the Expos in 2004, posting averages of .269/.336/.193 (remember, Iso, not Slg). But he couldn’t find the same stroke in 2005, posting .243/.348/.135 averages before being demoted to Triple-A Edmonton. And apparently his .324/.397/.221 performance there wasn’t enough to even warrant a September call-up. His fate was sealed.

Wilkerson is a more complex situation. He started 2005 on a hot streak, hitting .323/.393/.229 in April, but dropped off considerably afterwards, finishing with averages of .248/.351/.157 – including 42 doubles, good for 7th place in the NL. Certainly, those numbers aren’t terrible for a center fielder (though you’d much rather see them from a middle infielder or catcher), but Bowden obviously believed that Wilkerson’s April was an aberration, and that he wouldn’t contribute to the level that the Nats needed. Remember, Washington ranked dead last in the NL in runs scored, so a more powerful bat, especially in the outfield, was required for an upgrade.

Enter Soriano. Texas made it abundantly clear that he would be available in the 2005-2006 off-season, since the team did not wish to dish out the monster arbitration settlement he was inevitably going to get. So they dished him for well less than market value, though the trade just created an outfield bottleneck. Wilkerson plays the same position as two guys already on the Rangers roster, Gary Matthews, Jr. and Laynce Nix. In addition, they have Kevin Mench and David Dellucci out there, plus Phil Nevin to fill the DH role. And with Sledge, the Rangers finagled another lopsided trade, sending him, hot prospect Adrian Gonzalez, and young, promising starter Chris Young for soon-to-be free agent Adam Eaton (who, by the way, managed a 4.27 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, and .275 BAA last year…with the PADRES).

But I digress. With Wilkerson out of the picture, the Nationals could place Ryan Church in center, who posted averages of .287/.353/.179 over 268 at bats in 2005. If he can prorate that over an entire season, he becomes an instant upgrade over Wilkerson. At the more hitting oriented corners, the Nats would boast Jose Guillen and Soriano, which undoubtedly gives them considerably more offensive prowess in 2006. And with the always-affable Nick Johnson at first, Jose Vidro at second, Ryan Zimmerman at third, Christian Guzman and his improved vision at short, and Brian Schneider behind the plate, Jim Bowden had assembled a team that could compete with the shakiest Braves team in 14 years.

But then Soriano threw the whole plan for a loop when he came out with his “I wont’ play left field” tirade, which made Bowden look at least a little foolish for pulling the trigger on this trade. But remember, Soriano has a contract to play baseball for the Washington Nationals, not to exclusively play second base for the team. His job is to play where the manager tells him to play on a daily basis. And if he refuses, he is in the wrong, not the general manager who traded for him.

The most likely scenario at this point is a trade. However, the Nats may hit a wall on that front. How many teams need a second baseman and can afford Soriano’s $10 million price tag, AND are willing to give up legitimate talent for Sori? The only teams that even meet the first two parameters are the Mets, maybe the Angels, maybe the Cubs, and maybe the Indians. There’s little chance Bowden would ship him to their NL East mates the Mets.

Of the other three, I would think the Cubs would be the most likely destination. There have been rumblings that they’re unhappy with Todd Walker, and surely Jim Hendry would be willing to part ways with a few prospects to obtain a proven bat. But will Bowden accept just prospects? Felix Pie would be nice, but 1) can Hendry build a viable package around him and 2) would he even be willing to part ways with him at this point?

The Angles have the prospects, and Soriano would be a significant upgrade over incumbent Adam Kennedy. Once again, it’s going to depend on Bill Stoneman’s willingness to trade away someone like Erick Aybar or someone like that (because he surely wouldn’t consider parting ways with Brandon Wood). And, as before, we don’t know if Bowden is interested in such prospects.

Come to think of it, I’m quite surprised that there won’t be much of a market for Soriano. I mean, the last time he was traded, John Hicks was willing to part ways with A-Rod for him. And now he can’t catch an upper echelon prospect?

The other option is to place Fonzie on the disqualified list, as was discussed today. And by the way, I absolutely loved that Bowden referred to Soriano as Washington’s property. You know, just to remind him who’s in charge.

It’s doubtful that the situation will get that far. When you have to choose between switching positions and sitting out the year, not getting paid and being in the same situation – only you stand to make considerably less coin – the choice is obvious, right? There’s a fine line between standing your ground and being a complete buffoon.

I’m just hoping Sori understands where that line is.