The Left Fielder Stays in the Picture

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

In the end, the Nationals chose to believe Alfonso Soriano's words and, in a sense, trust his smile. Instead of worrying that they might look like saps in a few months, the Nats took a chance on laying the groundwork for a beautiful friendship. With as many as 20 teams interested in Soriano in the last week, the Nats took a gamble and didn't trade their best player yesterday.

Instead, they hope to sign him to a long-term deal before he leaves as a free agent and then build around him. "That door is certainly wide open," team president Stan Kasten said. As soon as the trade deadline passed, "the first person [GM] Jim Bowden and I called was Alfonso. When we told him he was staying, he was the happiest guy you ever saw. He reiterated, even when he didn't have to reiterate it anymore, 'This is where I want to be.'

"Whether we are ever able to agree, I still couldn't predict," said Kasten, who knows the pitfalls of such deals. "But you can count on us being serious. Others will offer money, too, but nowhere will he have the city behind him, the locker room behind him, the way he has it here."

Huge contracts are a tough nut, good will or not. But even if Soriano ultimately leaves town, the Nats may have made the right choice anyway because they did the right thing for the right reasons. Many will remember it. The small loss Washington may suffer in personnel -- the difference between the good-but-not-great prospects they could have gotten yesterday and the two draft picks they'd receive as compensation if Soriano leaves -- may be dwarfed by the credibility they immediately gain with their fans, their players and their biggest star.

Pro sports franchises develop a reputation that precedes them in all their dealings. Over time, a club's behavior becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, the Orioles have been cursed for years by the assumption that, given a range of possible motivations, theirs will be the worst. Just within recent days, Phils slugger Pat Burrell reportedly vetoed a trade to the Orioles for pitcher Rodrigo Lopez. No specific reason given, just "no."

At relatively little cost, except perhaps that insiders may chuckle at them if Soriano leaves, the Nats have said a loud "yes" to the clearly expressed interests of their frustrated fans and to their vocal pro-Soriano clubhouse. In the process, they have patched up a thorny relationship with Soriano that might have hurt Washington in future dealings with other stars.

If Soriano had been traded, what tale would he have told other players in the game? The Nats traded for him even though they weren't allowed to speak to him beforehand about what position he'd play. Then they put him in left field and threatened to dock his pay all season if he refused to switch positions. Finally, after beating him at salary arbitration, they sent him out of town at the trading deadline despite his model behavior, his praise for the town and team and his pace for a 49-homer, 40-steal season.

Wow, Washington, what a great, friendly place to sign up to play, right? Now the story is utterly reversed. According to sources, Soriano has told friends that the Bowden position switch was a net plus for him and that he'll probably never play second base again. In a crunch, the Nats have shown faith in him and, in a sense, have made amends.

"The hatchet has officially been buried between Soriano and Bowden," Kasten said. "There was some warmth between them when we met, just a couple of sentences. It has been strained. [Now] all is calm." For his part, Bowden continued his public praise, saying, "The fans wanted him back. Now we hope they fill the house up to celebrate Alfonso returning. Who knows, maybe he'll be the first 50 [homer]-50 [steal] man in the history of our sport."

Of course, all this might have ended differently if just one team had wanted Soriano so badly that it offered a blockbuster package of prospects. "We wouldn't have been doing our jobs properly if we hadn't played as hard as we could," said Kasten of those myriad trade talks. However, as time progressed, both men and the Lerner family began to see the benefits, both direct and subtle, of keeping Soriano a Nat, unless they received an offer so strong they couldn't responsibly refuse it.

Nats fans, frustrated by everyone from MLB execs to District pols to cable TV moguls, were falling in love with Soriano's bumptious demeanor and stunning play. Teammates sought out management en masse to lobby for their new leader. "It was overwhelming. I've never seen anything like it," Bowden said. "Rookies, pitchers, everybody. He's a role model for Ryan Zimmerman."

Even Zimmerman, that rare rookie whose vote counts, put in his pointed good words for Soriano. As a final ingredient, Soriano repeated that he wanted to stay in Washington, that he'd grown attached to the town and team. How many times could he say it, and in how many ways, before the Nats were put to the test: Did they doubt his honesty?

Gradually, trading Soriano seemed dumber than taking the gamble on keeping him. "You think we didn't think of that?" said Kasten. "But we couldn't say it." Who wastes time talking trade if they sense that the seller is gradually backing away?

By yesterday, the gap in talent between the birds in the hand that the Nats could get in trade and the birds in the bush that they would receive if Soriano eventually signed with another team didn't seem terribly significant. "We were offered some really good players," Bowden said. But they weren't offered any really great players. With the No. 1 draft pick, plus a sandwich pick that the Nats would receive as compensation for Soriano, they could probably grab two roughly comparable players.

At the very worst, Nationals fans will now get to see Soriano finish one of the best offensive seasons by any player in Washington's long baseball history.

At best, however, the Nats may have laid the groundwork for signing yet another of their core future players. How many is that now? If Soriano were retained, Washington would have six everyday players for its Southeast ballpark -- Soriano, catcher Brian Schneider, first baseman Nick Johnson, shortstop Felipe Lopez, third baseman Zimmerman, right fielder Austin Kearns. On the pitching side, perhaps only one top-of-the-rotation starter -- John Patterson -- and one back-of-the-bullpen closer -- Chad Cordero -- are in hand. Still, that is far more of a base than almost anyone in baseball thought Washington might have by this year.

Just as pertinent, the Nats might not be too hard to watch the next couple of years if Soriano were aboard. "Lopez and I were walking up the tunnel after a game," said Kearns, "and I told him, 'If Soriano stays, this is a pretty good team we've got here already.' "

Let's not get carried away. Soriano is far from signed. But some of the burden of credibility has been shifted. "In a sense, we've done our job now," Kasten said. "So there may be some work required on his side."

At least, by declining to trade, the Nationals have made it possible for that important negotiating work to be done.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company