By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 31, 2006; E01
LOS ANGELES, July 30 -- When the Washington Nationals' bus pulled out of the lot just beyond center field Sunday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, Alfonso Soriano was on it, headed to the airport. On the same bus sat Jim Bowden, the team's general manager, carrying not just his luggage, but the future of Soriano and the rest of the franchise in his hands.
For the first time Sunday, Soriano -- the focus of speculation, rumor, innuendo and everything in between in the month leading up to Monday's trade deadline -- looked as if the ordeal was affecting him. In the course of a 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, he went 0 for 4, struck out twice, was thrown out stealing and nearly misplayed a ball in left.
"I try not to worry about it," he said. "But now, I get close, and I see all the time my name in the news, I get a little worried."
He must worry, one way or the other, for only one more day. As the 4 p.m. Eastern time deadline approached, the ever-evolving list of suitors continued to include Houston, Minnesota and the Los Angeles Angels -- the last of which has long been considered the best fit. Yet there were signs that other, new teams -- perhaps feeling the Nationals have to deal Soriano, lest they risk losing him to free agency -- were entering the fray.
Among those latecomers were, of all teams, the Florida Marlins, the club with the lowest payroll in baseball, one that was 6 1/2 games out of the lead in the National League wild-card race. The Marlins, however, are flush with prospects, and if other deals fall through, they could be standing there, at the last minute, as a fallback, willing to part with right-handers Yusmeiro Petit and left-handers Renyel Pinto and Jason Vargas.
None of those count among the Marlins' best young prospects, but Florida's entry came as, some sources believed, other teams were joining in what could be a frantic finish. Bowden was asked Sunday if there was a chance he would make no trades. "Yeah, sure," he said, but he added, "That's unlikely."
Pitcher Livan Hernandez is being targeted by the New York Mets, but to this point, the Nationals won't pick up any of his $7 million salary in 2007. Right-handers Tony Armas Jr. and Ramon Ortiz -- who pitched into the seventh inning for the sixth time in his last seven starts Sunday -- are other prime candidates to be moved.
"You've got so many teams in the pennant race in so many divisions," Bowden said. "Everybody's playing, and everybody has a pecking order of priorities that they want. And until their priorities are done, they don't go to Plan B, C and D until they know Plan A is out of the way. What that causes is a potential[ly] active Monday."
Bowden remains adamant that the Nationals won't lower their asking price for Soriano.
"It hasn't been met yet," Bowden said. "If it had been, we would have tried to make a trade. We haven't had anybody make a deal that we liked."
Though Bowden continues to target the best young players in the system of each potential partner, there are some who believe the Nationals won't get what they're asking for. An official of one team that recently dropped out of the running said, "They may have priced themselves out on this one." Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire said that while Minnesota still considers itself a contender for Soriano, it might cost too much.
"They are looking for high-priced prospects," Gardenhire told reporters. "I mean, they're looking for a lot. . . . You're going to have to come up with a very good package."
There are still members of the organization who think Soriano could sign a long-term deal with Washington if he's not traded. But that's a two-way street, and the Nationals would have to decide that locking up Soriano would be worth the money of a franchise that's likely to struggle on the field the next two seasons. If Soriano isn't traded but leaves as a free agent, the Nationals would receive two high draft picks as compensation.
"Obviously, we want to do better than two draft picks if we were to move a Type A free agent," Bowden said. He added, "We've got to be wise on how we spend dollars and how we make decisions on players."
When the Nationals arrived here, they were on a season-high six-game winning streak, and with a good showing could have been in that mix with Florida. But they finished the sweep Sunday because they couldn't take advantage of nine walks issued by Dodgers pitchers.
Ortiz allowed three solo homers in 6 1/3 innings, the last a pinch-hit shot to Jose Cruz Jr. that tied the game in the seventh.
"That home run hurt my heart, man," Ortiz said. "I couldn't believe it."
The winning run scored in the eighth, when Cesar Izturis hit a hard one-hopper down the first base line. First baseman Nick Johnson got his mitt on the ball but couldn't knock it down, and James Loney scored from second base. Manager Frank Robinson, though, said he was culpable for the play because he should have positioned Johnson closer to the line during the late innings of a tie ballgame.
"I'd rather take the blame for this one myself," Robinson said.
Sunday, Soriano sat at his locker in underwear and flip-flops for perhaps 15 minutes after the game, staring into space. Whether he will be part of the future of this franchise would be determined in the coming hours.
"You look at our record, you see how we play," Bowden said. "We have a long way to go to get to where we want to go to."