As Attachment Grows, Perhaps Soriano Should Stick Around

Alfonso Soriano, center, has adjusted to left field and to the city.
Alfonso Soriano, center, has adjusted to left field and to the city. "Why do we want to trade him when he says he wants to stay here?" at least one teammate wonders. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Thomas Boswell
Friday, July 28, 2006

As Alfonso Soriano rounded the bases after his leadoff home run in the first inning yesterday at RFK Stadium, Washington General Manager Jim Bowden rose in his box to applaud like an approving Caesar, "I, Claudius" haircut and all. Thumbs up. Let him stay a National for another day. Perhaps, before the crowd even sat down, Bowden's phone had rung. Several times.

Every day, with every spectacular performance, Soriano makes himself easier to trade. The Nats' grand plan, to swap him for multiple young prospects to stock the team that will play someday in Southeast, looks smarter and smarter. Unless they are actually outsmarting themselves.

In a twist nobody expected, Soriano has added new spin to an old baseball midseason melodrama. He hasn't merely raised his trade value and astronomically increased his own market value as a free agent after the season. He has elevated his game so high, and become so beloved by his teammates and professed to like his new team and town so much, that the Nationals suddenly confront a truly confounding question: Why on earth would you trade this guy at all?

Since July 3, he's batting .400 with 20 extra-base hits, 15 walks and 7 steals in just 19 games. In this six-game Nats homestand, which Washington swept to the cheers of 197,637 fans (an average of 32,940 per game), Soriano slugged .955 with four doubles, a triple and two homers. He tagged and scored on a pop-up to second base. He robbed Barry Bonds of a double with a sprinting catch. He scored at least once in every game and twice in four contests. Sure, every player looks better than he really is when he's on a hot streak. But right now Soriano doesn't just look better than Soriano. He looks better than Willie Mays.

"Some of us were talking. Soriano may be the only player in baseball that pitchers are afraid to pitch to and afraid to pitch around," Ryan Zimmerman said. "He hits it out of the park or he walks and then steals second base and maybe third, too."

In March, when Soriano refused to play left field, this soap opera seemed destined for an ugly divorce. Does it now have the potential for an odd-couple marriage? By the time Soriano prepared to leave RFK yesterday, he said: "I don't want to think of today as my last day [at RFK]. If something happens, I will miss my friends. I'm going to be very sad if I have to leave. I love the fans. I love the town. If it's my last game, they know how I feel. Thank God that I did the switch" to left field.

Those who think that Soriano might re-sign with the Nats if he is traded are probably dreaming. Those who know Soriano well say he has strong and straightforward loyalties and expects the same in return. He refers to teammates as "friends." If he extends his hand and it's rejected, he's done with you. "If they trade me," he said, "I'm not going to be happy with the team."

Right now, rival teams may be nickel-and-diming the Nats, assuming they're committed to dealing Soriano by Monday's trade deadline. That has certainly been the mind-set ever since the Lerner family bought the team in May with a build-for-the-long-haul mantra. But, as Emerson said, a person who never changes his mind is someone who just hasn't been thinking. The way Soriano has played -- on pace for 51 homers, 122 runs and 40 steals -- has been so transcendental it might change anybody's mind.

Why, many now ask, wouldn't the Nats keep Soriano for the rest of this season, then take him at his word that he enjoys Washington and try to re-sign him to a five-year, $60 to $70 million contract as a free agent? If you fail, and he signs with another team, you still get two high draft picks as compensation, one in the first round and another between the first and second round.

If the Nats follow the sport's conventional wisdom and trade Soriano, their front office won't just run the risk of confusing their fans -- who've recently rediscovered the route to RFK -- but of seriously befuddling their own players. Any deal with the slightest bargain-basement stench may end up being remembered as long as the Denny McLain fiasco 36 years ago.

"I don't understand," said one of the players considered central to the team's future. "Why do we want to trade him when he says he wants to stay here? And if he doesn't stay, we still get draft picks for him. He's a great person, a great player, a great role model. If he's this good in left field in four months, how good will he be in two years? He hates being bad at anything. He's 30 but look what great shape he's in. He'll probably play until he's 40. Why don't we want to build around him?"

Whether the Nationals prefer it or not, that's the consensus of their locker room. In fact, Manager Frank Robinson said that the team's affection and respect for Soriano has been a catalyst in its recent winning streak. "If he's going to go, I think they want to send him out on a good note," Robinson said, "or put a lot of pressure on management not to trade him."

However, Robinson also sees the broader picture that some of his players miss. "Alfonso says the team is in control. That's true right now. But what people don't understand is that, in the end, he is in the driver's seat," Robinson said. "If he wants to come back [as a free agent], they will make him an offer. I would think he would want to test the [free agent] waters and see what his options are."

In a perfectly rational world, the Nats could trade Soriano for prospects, then attempt to re-sign him in November with no hard feelings and only warm memories of his four months as the most exciting Washington baseball player ever seen in RFK.

However, that's not the real world. If Soriano is an ex-National before the team's next game, or by next Monday at 4 p.m. at the latest, then he will never be back. That's just baseball.

Bowden and team president Stan Kasten maintain that they feel no pressure, that they know what they think Soriano is worth and that they will not accept an iota less in any trade. They better stick to those guns.

But here's what he's done in the last week. On Friday, he reached base three times, stole two bases and scored twice. On Saturday, he had three doubles and a triple on national TV. On Sunday, he doubled, homered and barely missed two other homers. On Tuesday, he only scored one run. So, the last two games, he atoned with a single, double, homer and two walks.

If baseball's contenders don't want to pay plenty for this guy, let him stay right here. We like his smile.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company