With Soriano as bait, Bowden is big fish


As soon as Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden made the announcement late at night during the final full evening of baseball's December meetings in Dallas, the snickers started.

There's Trader Jim making a splash for the purpose of making a splash.

The snickers grew into full-blown laughter a few days later when Alfonso Soriano, the superstar Bowden had just traded three players for, said he didn't want to move from second base to the outfield.

It was a legitimate problem because the Nationals already had an established second baseman in Jose Vidro, whose hefty contract made him an unlikely trade chip and whose beaten knees made it impossible for him to play anywhere else.

Bowden looked stuck with two expensive second basemen, a hole in the outfield and one pricey controversy.

"We said at the time we thought we were getting one of best offensive players in the game and we were coming off a season in which we were one of the worst offensive clubs in the majors," Bowden said. "That's why we made the deal. If I could make it over, I'd make it over again."

Bowden tried to deflect the criticism, predicting everything would work out. And he maintained that mantra even when Soriano reported to spring training and reiterated his stance against playing outfield.

Both proud men were hammered by the media: Bowden for not crossing his T's before making a blockbuster and Soriano for being an `I' player, for putting his needs over his team's. A public relations disaster for both men.

Nearly eight months later, they each are in a position to triumph.

For the past two weeks, Bowden has been at baseball's epicenter. Soriano, a free agent at season's end, is the best available bait in the game right now. By playing his cards right and trading Soriano for a large bounty, Bowden can go a long way to rebuilding the Nationals franchise.

He most likely will bring in a group with a higher upside than what he dealt to Texas: Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge and minor league pitcher Armando Galarraga.

The risk was significant; the reward even better. It might have even helped save his job with the new regime in Washington.

As for Soriano, the uncertainty of that December evening and the frustration of this spring have given way to an incredible summer and a winter of certain riches.

He finally relented and switched to left field in March. He's played the position adequately if not better - leading the majors in outfield assists. He also has proved he can pound the baseball outside of humid Ameriquest Field in Arlington.

Entering last night's games, Soriano was second in the league in home runs (32) and is sixth in stolen bases (26). He has done it while switching teams, leagues and positions and moving from a bandbox to a notorious pitcher's park.

"From the start, [critics] say to me that the ballpark is big and my numbers are not going to be that great like in the past," Soriano said. "And I am not saying nothing. Because I know who I am."

He's now potentially the richest free agent of 2006-07 and will almost certainly be among baseball's highest-paid players. His defensive flexibility makes him even more marketable. And the suggestion this spring that he was selfish is a purged memory. He's been heralded as a great teammate, a fan favorite and, once again, the good guy he was reported to be before the outfield controversy began.

He's even considering a full-time switch to outfield next year.

"I'd say for now it's 60 percent I want to play left field [in 2007], but we'll see," he said. "But I am thinking I cannot [bend] down like I am supposed to when I play second base. My back is a little tight so I think if I move back to second base I have to put in some more work."

What a turnaround from March, when Soriano was an infielder only.

"I think that it was a good trade for me because now I know myself more," Soriano said. "I didn't know I could be a very good outfielder. Now I know."

Bowden was right; it all worked itself out.

Now that he could have the last laugh, the Nationals GM refused to swipe at his critics.

"I'd rather not comment on that," he said.

No matter how the final chapter of Soriano and the Nationals ends, it'll go down as one of the better story lines of 2006. One that took a turn few expected. And, apparently, helped Soriano and the Nationals in the end.

"I think it's special what he accomplished," Bowden said of Soriano. "In his first year in left field he was voted into the All-Star Game by the fans. That's a tribute to his work ethic. He is a good player, a good person and I only wish him good things."

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