By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 24, 2006; E01
He draws the loudest cheers, hits the longest home runs, smiles the brightest smile. When Alfonso Soriano launched a ball deep toward left field yesterday at RFK Stadium, even new Washington Nationals President Stan Kasten, watching from the press box, yelled, "Get out!" as it ascended on a high arc. When the ball settled into the mezzanine level for Soriano's 31st homer, Kasten followed with a celebratory, "Oh, yeah!"
Shortly afterward, in the midst of the Nationals' 7-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs, Kasten added another layer to the great debate about whether Soriano will stay with the Nationals or be traded to a contender. Kasten, miffed by a published remark from Soriano's representative saying the two sides had not spoken about Soriano's stated desire to stay in Washington, said he had not only talked with Soriano about how pleased the club is with his performance -- the latest being a lengthy chat Thursday -- but he had held "numerous" conversations with Soriano's agent, Diego Bentz.
"The fact is, our position has never changed," Kasten said. "We love Alfonso. Lots of people do. Let's face it: He's a potential MVP candidate. It goes without saying that he's a superior player. But you know, our number one mission is to aim to be the best team we can as soon as possible."
Forget, for a moment, that Tony Armas Jr. had perhaps his best performance of the season yesterday, an impressive seven-inning, three-hit, no-walk outing that could entice a contending team to deal the Nationals a low-level prospect in exchange for Armas. Forget, too, that Ryan Church chipped in with a two-run homer, his first major league hit in more than two months.
And never mind that -- on the weekend that the family of Theodore N. Lerner finally signed documents transferring ownership of the team from Major League Baseball, when Kasten and Co. "reopened" RFK with much fanfare -- the Nationals swept the lowly Cubs, Washington's first series sweep at RFK this year.
Tuck all that away. The most intriguing and important topic at RFK is Soriano -- what he does, what he says, how he acts and, most notably, where he will end up. The Nationals play three games this week at RFK against the San Francisco Giants, and everyone in the organization and the stands realizes this could be Soriano's last Washington appearance in a home jersey, even if the two sides are talking. The July 31 trade deadline is a week from today, and as many as eight teams are potentially interested in Soriano -- including the Chicago White Sox, a relative newcomer whose chief adversaries, the Detroit Tigers, have been monitoring Soriano for weeks.
So into this environment, Soriano walks every day. "It's a little hard," said Soriano, who homered, doubled and scored twice.
Kasten would not talk about specifics of the discussions. Bentz, reached by phone, merely reiterated that his client "likes it there, and would like to stay there. They know that."
But the conversations, both sides said, should not be characterized as negotiations, and there have been no numbers exchanged. Members of Soriano's camp have told the Nationals that they do not want to burden Soriano with the distraction of a contract extension during the season, and it seems almost certain that -- whether he is traded or not -- he will hit the free agent market when his current deal expires at the end of this season. Soriano seemed to endorse that approach, saying he doesn't believe a new contract could be forged prior to the trade deadline.
"To me, I like to focus on the game every day, not try to think about something else," he said. "It's very hard to play this game."
Soriano is making $10 million this season. He will be looking for a multiyear contract, and two National League executives said recently that he will likely end up with a four- or five-year deal worth roughly $12-13 million annually, though he could initially ask for as much as five years at $15 million.
Soriano, now hitting .288 and with a .955 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, has been increasingly clear over the last two weeks that his "first choice" is to remain in Washington. But several conversations with him and those close to him reveal that his greatest desire is stability, a quality of which he has had little in a career that began in Japan and included tenures with three major league teams. To that end, Soriano said he wants a no-trade clause in his next contract.
"All my six years in the big leagues, they always talk about trading me," Soriano said. "I want to, next year, have my contract -- or this year, whatever -- [with a] no-trade clause, because I want to control that part of the game."
Kasten, who ran the Atlanta Braves as well as the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers, is not inclined to grant players such control.
"I've never in my career -- three teams, all these many seasons, [even with] all-stars, Hall of Famers -- no one has ever had a no-trade contract," Kasten said. "That's just a matter of history. . . . I have a philosophy about that. You can give a guy what you want, you can pay as much as you want. What you can't give away is your power to improve your club."
Which, of course, the Nationals desperately want to do, because they are well out of the race for the postseason and their farm system is bereft of what most scouts consider top-flight major league prospects. Soriano, in turn, is the only player on the roster who could, by himself, command two or three players who could help the Nationals win a division title in three or four seasons, when their roster overhaul could be complete.
"They have to decide what they want to do," one source close to the situation said yesterday. The source requested anonymity because both sides consider such talks to be private.
Soriano's performance, amidst this swirl, has been remarkable. He is hitting .457 with four homers in nine games since the all-star break, when the trade talk has been at its highest. He also just missed a pitch in the first, flying out to left, and drove a ball deep to center in the sixth.
"He could have very easily had three [homers] today," Manager Frank Robinson said.
The Cubs, though, came nowhere near such an output against Armas, who completed seven innings for only the second time this season. He was atypical Armas, throwing first-pitch strikes to 14 of the 24 batters he faced, sailing through five 1-2-3 innings, working ahead in the count nearly the whole way.
"He was aggressive and he was going right after them," catcher Brian Schneider said.
Which, from up in his box, is what General Manager Jim Bowden is doing with all the other teams -- being aggressive, trying to go right after prospects that could help his team in the long haul. Soriano is at the crux of those conversations, whether he wants to stay here or not.
Soriano, true to his wish to have as few distractions as possible, told Bentz not to call him with all the rumors he's hearing. "Just call me," he said, "when there's something important to say to me."