For now, Soriano avoids his awkward position

At Classic, he gets relief from Nats' outfield issue

Baseball

March 11, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Alfonso Soriano wants to show the world that the Dominican Republic is as good as advertised. He loves the honor of playing for his country. It's important for him to be part of the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

And it doesn't hurt that Soriano's getting a much-needed break from the controversy that has dogged him since December.

"I don't want to talk about outfield and the situation with the Nationals of Washington," Soriano said while wearing a Dominican Republic uniform this week. "I am here with my country and I don't think about the problem I have with Washington. I think about here and representing my country."

Soriano, who has made four straight American League All-Star appearances as a second baseman, was thrown into a sticky predicament this offseason when the Texas Rangers traded him to the Nationals for outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and a minor leaguer.

Washington badly needed Soriano's offense. The Nationals were the majors' worst in batting average, home runs, runs scored and RBIs. Meanwhile, Soriano won his third Silver Slugger Award in four years. He had 36 homers, 104 RBIs, 102 runs scored and batted .268 in 2005.

The rub is that Washington already had a fine second baseman in former All-Star Jose Vidro, who because of his surgically repaired knees, is anchored at the position. General manager Jim Bowden acknowledged the logjam when he made the trade, but said Soriano would fill the team's gaping hole in left field.

A great plan, assuming Soriano was on board. He wasn't.

He's in his final season before free agency and was forced to switch leagues. It's the second time in five years he's been asked to move positions (he was a shortstop in the New York Yankees' organization). He's also changing from one of baseball's best hitter parks in Texas to one of the worst in Washington.

So Soriano, 30, said he's had enough adjusting and acquiescing. He's not budging from his stance: Play me at second or trade me to someone who will.

"I am not worried about the situation with the Nationals. They have plenty of time to think about it and I am not going to think about it," Soriano said. "That's not my job. That's their problem. I only have to play baseball."

At first blush, this looks like the typical, spoiled-athlete story.

Soriano, after all, is making $10 million in 2006, not bad for a guy never known for his glove. Although he led American League second baseman in assists and total chances last season, he also had a major-league-tying 21 errors at his position. That's more than Orlando Hudson, Mark Ellis and Brian Roberts combined.

Soriano's career fielding percentage at second base is .971; Vidro's is .984. Soriano hasn't had fewer than 19 errors in a full season at second; Vidro has never had more than 11.

Yet the reigning dean of baseball's old school, Nationals manager Frank Robinson, said he sympathizes with Soriano's plight. Honestly.

"Any manager would like to see, when you make a deal for someone, that they come in and say, `OK I fit here or there and I'm going to play this position,' " Robinson said. "But understand, we understand where he's coming from also.

"He's been an All-Star second baseman. He is one of the best players in baseball because of his offense at that position. ... Moving your family and getting adjusted; it plays on a guy's mind. And sometimes you say things and make statements, and a bit later on you don't really mean what you say."

Robinson is taking a wait-and-see approach with his new slugger. And he said his players aren't judging Soriano either.

"He's the new guy, OK? He is the one that has to work himself in here," said veteran reliever Joey Eischen. "We are going to treat him just as if he has been here for 10 years. But, nevertheless, he is the one that has a bunch of new relationships to build on and that's a tough thing for guys."

Soriano said he has been accepted by his new teammates, including Vidro, his sudden, second base rival.

"We don't talk about the situation because it is not his problem and it is not my problem," Soriano said. "We talk as friends."

Time, though, is running out on the friendly, positional impasse.

Even if the Dominican Republic gets to the finals of the World Baseball Classic, the event will be over by March 20. Opening Day for the Nationals is April 3. That's a two-week window for one side to veer away from this game of baseball chicken.

Soriano's only true leverage if he doesn't want to play left is to sit out the season - a risky financial move that could have a disastrous effect this offseason, when he'll likely be due a huge free-agent contract.

Trading the oft-injured Vidro, who has $23 million and three years left on his contract, is virtually impossible. And getting full trade value for Soriano will be difficult since other teams know the Nationals' predicament.

Unless Vidro gets hurt, Soriano may have no recourse but to begrudgingly move to the outfield, which he has never played in a big league game.

"He is a good athlete," said Junior Noboa, a Dominican Republic coach who played six positions in the major leagues. "[But] if he doesn't want to do it, it doesn't matter if he can. ... When you go to the outfield or you go to a different position with a bad attitude, it is not good for him or for the club."

At least until he rejoins the Nationals, Soriano's attitude couldn't be cheerier. He loves the interaction with his fellow countrymen. Plus, he's playing where he wants.

"Nobody even thinks about me playing outfield here because they have a lot of players in the outfield," Soriano said.

"And I am a second baseman."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.