By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; E01
The man in the middle of the market sat down yesterday evening, his wares being peddled across the nation. Jim Bowden is the general manager of the Washington Nationals, and in the hours leading up to last night's 8-6 win over the San Francisco Giants at RFK Stadium, he said he had spoken to 27 teams about the possibility of trading one or more of his players. It is quite likely no other team is as intent on breaking things down so it can build them back up again.
At the center of the talk, of course, is left fielder Alfonso Soriano, the commodity that glistens a little bit more than the others available this trading season, which will close Monday. Bowden, as has been his policy, won't discuss specific offers for Soriano. But he is aware that Nationals fans -- and, indeed, the Nationals themselves -- would like to see the team's most ebullient and explosive player remain here past the deadline, even beyond this season.
It doesn't matter.
"We all want to win a world championship, and we all have a difficult path to get there," Bowden said. "And sometimes, you're going to have to make unpopular decisions to get there. And that's ahead of us. And certainly, there's going to be bumps in the road, and there's going to be tears on the way, and it's going to be tough."
All indications yesterday were that the market for Soriano is still hot, with the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox among the teams interested.
Because of all the activity and speculation about where Soriano could be headed, several opposing officials have theorized that Bowden might be pitting one club against another in order to drive up the price those teams would ultimately pay. Bowden denied that, and said that he won't waver from what he is asking from teams, even as the deadline approaches.
"We know the price that we need to have from clubs," he said. "The price doesn't change. The price today is the same price it's going to be at the deadline. We don't have to trade anybody. . . . You're not going to see us, at the last minute, all of a sudden, we change our price. I've never done that. I don't believe in it."
If that philosophy holds, that means any club expecting to trade for Soriano -- who has 31 homers and 25 stolen bases -- will have to part with prime prospects, those that may have been previously labeled as off-limits. For the Yankees, that would include Class AA right-hander Philip Hughes. For the White Sox, it would seem to include either right-hander Brandon McCarthy or third base-outfield prospect Josh Fields -- both of whom GM Kenny Williams said he wouldn't deal. For the Angels, it likely means either second baseman Howie Kendrick or right-hander Ervin Santana.
"Someone is going to have to budge," one member of a rival club said when informed that Bowden said the price would remain high.
Bowden, as he always does, said his prime target is "pitching, pitching, pitching, pitching," and he also identified center field as an obvious need. Given that the Nationals traded young relievers Gary Majewski and Bill Bray in order to obtain right fielder Austin Kearns and shortstop Felipe Lopez this month, pitching is the most glaring weakness in an already weak farm system. "We always target pitching first," he said.
But Bowden was clear that he is seeking the best players, regardless of position, who are available.
"You don't worry about the position when you're building long-term," he said. "If it works out that it has to be a third baseman, even though [rookie Ryan] Zimmerman's going to be here for 10 years, then you do it. You're more concerned about talent than you are a body."
As they worked on finding a buyer for Soriano, the Nationals were also in the midst of exploring possibilities for players such as right-handers Livan Hernandez, Tony Armas Jr. and Ramon Ortiz, who won last night despite giving up five runs in six innings. Hernandez's final start before the trade deadline is Thursday afternoon against the Giants, and it could be important. Of Armas (7-5, 4.35 ERA) and Ortiz (7-9, 4.87 ERA), Bowden said, "They're both good pitchers that are healthy."
One player who won't be traded is second baseman Jose Vidro, who went on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring yesterday. That ensures that Vidro will remain the player with the longest tenure with this franchise, dating from 1992.
Vidro, whose locker is next to Soriano's, said he was watching TV Monday night when news moved that Soriano could be going to the White Sox.
"It kind of hit a nerve," Vidro said. "You think, 'How are we going to survive without him?' . . . There's special players in this league, and he's one of them. I have seen a lot of guys come and go, and very few you notice when they're gone. He's going to be very, very noticeable."
On a daily basis now, a gaggle of print, television and radio reporters gather at Soriano's locker prior to and after games, and he dutifully answers questions to which he has no answer. "I just want to play, because that's what I love to do," he said yesterday.
Reliever Mike Stanton, during his 18 years in the majors, said he has never played with anyone who has been at the center of such a storm at the deadline. He has, however, seen players allow the effect of the rumors to spread through the clubhouse.
"It depends on how the player reacts to what's going on," Stanton said. "But he's been so great, there's been nothing on the rest of us."
In the highly remote chance that Soriano is not traded and he signed with another team in the offseason, the Nationals would receive two draft picks, one in the first round. Bowden said he considers draft choices "precious," and there remains a scenario in which Soriano could stay -- for those two months after the deadline, when the Nationals' most immediate goal will be to finish someplace other than last.
That, though, wouldn't fit the long-term philosophy, the road filled with pain that, Bowden believes, will lead to a better place.
"You have to make difficult decisions," he said, "to have success."