By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; E01
SAN FRANCISCO, July 31 -- His locker was adorned with streamers and banners and signs of affection that ranged from a bottle of premium tequila to a bowl of fruit. And when Alfonso Soriano walked into the visitors' clubhouse at AT&T Park -- still a Washington National more than two hours after Monday's trade deadline had passed-- the room exploded in applause and impromptu chants of "Sor-i-a-no! Sor-i-a-no!"
"I'm happy, because the rumors are done already," Soriano said several minutes later. "So now, it's more easy for me to focus and play every day."
For now, Soriano's wish became a reality, and the left fielder remained with the Nationals despite the overwhelming evidence that he would be traded. Of all the surprising developments on a hectic final day that ended the non-waiver trade period, perhaps the most surprising transaction was the one that didn't take place. The Nationals, faced with as many as a dozen suitors but left with no deal with which they felt comfortable, hung onto Soriano despite the fact that they desperately want to rebuild their substandard farm system -- not to mention the fact that Soriano could depart Washington in the offseason as a free agent.
"We felt the best deal that we could make was no deal for this franchise," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "We consider Alfonso one of the best players in baseball. It's a player that wants to stay in D.C., did not want to be traded. He wants to stay here long-term. . . .
"Our job is to make sure we explore every possible option to help build this team into a world championship club. It was our job to engage in trade negotiations with everybody in our organization in an effort to try to improve."
Yet on a day when several Nationals might have been traded, the makeup of the team -- one that sits in last place in the National League East -- remained exactly the same. Pitchers Livan Hernandez, Tony Armas Jr. and Ramon Ortiz also stayed with the club. Those players could still be traded, though with the deadline gone, they would have to pass through waivers -- a process in which every other team would have a chance at claiming them before a trade was made.
The centerpiece of the Nationals' trade talks, though, was Soriano. While the fact that he remained with the Nationals was an immediate positive for this clubhouse -- "I think it's a period of time now where they can exhale," Manager Frank Robinson said of his players -- it didn't do anything toward enhancing the minor league system that Bowden calls "an obsession." The Nationals, sources said, were never offered the prime prospects they sought in return.
Both Nats President Stan Kasten and Bowden said they would explore a contract extension with Soriano, who reiterated that he would like to remain in Washington. But Soriano also said he doesn't want to negotiate during the season.
"Now is the time to focus and play," he said. "There's two months left, so we got to hope this team plays better and see what happens."
Soriano, who earns $10 million this season, is likely to seek a deal worth between $12 million and $15 million annually over a four- or five-year period. Should he sign elsewhere after the season, the Nationals would receive a first-round draft pick and another choice sandwiched between the first and second rounds. Not trading Soriano was, Kasten and Bowden acknowledged, a risk.
"There's certainly nothing certain about what will happen after this year," Kasten said. "But we do love Alfonso and what he's done for our team, what he means to our team, and what he means to our fans. And if there's a way for us to keep him consistent with building a world championship, we'll do that.
"But we're always going to look at the best of our alternatives. For today, there wasn't anything that was good enough for us to trade him."
Still, as late as 45 minutes before the deadline it appeared Soriano would be moved. The final two teams appeared to be Minnesota and Seattle, though the list of those pursuing Soriano evolved over the course of the last two days and, at various times, included Oakland, the Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers and even late-comers such as Florida and Boston.
"The whole process was very fluid," Bowden said. "The teams were changing. The players involved in trades were changing."
Yet not to Bowden's liking. Bowden was steadfast in his belief that he understood what Soriano was worth in return, even if he was to be a two-month rental for a contending team. And with no package of those top-flight prospects -- from Seattle center fielder Adam Jones to Minnesota pitcher Matt Garza to Angels infielders Brandon Wood and Howie Kendrick to Astros pitcher Jason Hirsh -- available, some around baseball thought Bowden might have overestimated Soriano's value. As Minnesota General Manager Terry Ryan told reporters in Minneapolis, "He knew where I stood, and I knew where he stood."
"Teams seemingly didn't want to get involved with quote-unquote 'rental players,' " Giants General Manager Brian Sabean said.
The Nationals, before the deadline, made two trades, completing an eight-player deal that revolved around sending relievers Bill Bray and Gary Majewski to Cincinnati for outfielder Austin Kearns and infielder Felipe Lopez. Last Friday, they sent lefty Mike Stanton to San Francisco for a 19-year-old pitching prospect.
"And after that," Bowden said, "we felt that no other deals was the best way to go based on everything that was on the table."
There was, too, an intense desire from the Nationals' players to keep Soriano, and several -- as individuals and in groups -- came to Kasten and Bowden to express that. He is a tone-setter in the clubhouse, both with his upbeat attitude and relentless work ethic.
"It'd be great if he could be here for some time," first baseman Nick Johnson said. "He's such a great player. He can do it all -- steal bags, hit with pop. He's doing good in left, and he wants to win."
So Monday night, he took batting practice, then led off for the Nationals. For now, he is here. Two things, though, remain undetermined -- where Soriano will play next season, and how the Nationals will rebuild their franchise.
"We have a long way to go to get there," Bowden said.