By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2006
Alfonso Soriano took what could be the first step in leaving the Washington Nationals yesterday, officially declaring free agency, opening the bidding among all 30 major league teams on perhaps the premier offensive player on the market.
The move was expected, and it ensures that Soriano will listen to offers from other teams. Several executives said during this postseason that they expect Soriano to ask for at least $18 million per season for a deal that could last five or six seasons, though he could end up signing a deal worth slightly less.
The Nationals, meantime, will be under intense scrutiny from the baseball world regarding Soriano. In last place in the National League East for nearly the entire season, Washington fielded offers for its left fielder -- a converted second baseman -- all the way up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. For a team that needs badly to rebuild its entire system -- from rookie ball to the majors -- the decision not to move Soriano was viewed as at worst a failure and at best a risk.
Nationals President Stan Kasten declined to comment last night on Soriano's move. But after he and General Manager Jim Bowden decided, on the day of the deadline, that the best deal was no deal, he acknowledged the dilemma.
"There's certainly nothing certain about what will happen after this year," Kasten said then. "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."
Neither Soriano nor his agent, Diego Bentz, returned messages yesterday.
There are indications that the Nationals have at least been in discussions with Soriano, though whether numbers have been exchanged is unclear. Washington, which finished with the third-worst record in the NL, must also decide whether keeping Soriano is in its best interest, given the cost. Should he depart via free agency, they would receive a first-round draft pick and another choice sandwiched between the first and second rounds.
The Nationals believe that they are at least two seasons from seriously competing for a division title, and Kasten has acknowledged that part of the evaluation of whether to pursue Soriano would be deciding whether committing such a large percentage of the team's payroll to one player is wise. Kasten, not Bowden, is leading the Nationals' negotiations.
Soriano, 30, hit .277 with 46 homers and 95 RBI for Washington after he was acquired in a trade last December with Texas, becoming only the fourth player to hit at least 40 homers and steal at least 40 bases in the same season. He earned $10 million this season after losing an arbitration case to the Nationals last offseason.
Right-hander Tony Armas Jr., also a Bentz client, was the only other National to file for free agency yesterday, the second day players were eligible to do so. Armas, who has never played for another major league franchise, went 9-12 with a 5.03 ERA last season.
Also yesterday, the Nationals asked permission to speak with St. Louis Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo about Washington's open managerial position, according to a source.