By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2006
That slugger Alfonso Soriano is leaving the Washington Nationals is hardly a shock, given the club's long-term vision of rebuilding a winner through its farm system and Soriano's status as the most electric free agent on the market.
But the contract Soriano agreed to yesterday -- an eight-year, $136 million deal with the Chicago Cubs -- sent waves through baseball and established Soriano as the first beneficiary of an industry that finds itself flush with cash this offseason, and likely also drove up the price for other free agents. Two weeks before baseball's winter meetings begin, the spending has started.
"We wish Alfonso nothing but success, and we congratulate him on his contract," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said last night. "We just did not feel it was in the best interest of the team to go that many years and that many dollars. We felt those dollars were better utilized in other ways."
The deal, confirmed by several major league sources yesterday afternoon, is pending Soriano undergoing a physical exam but should be announced this week, perhaps today. One source said the Cubs had granted Soriano one of his most significant wishes -- a no-trade clause, a tactic Nationals President Stan Kasten adamantly opposes. Neither Soriano nor his primary agent, Diego Bentz, returned calls seeking comment.
The Nationals were never truly in the running to retain their star player. They made an offer early in the process, believed to be worth an average of around $14 million to $15 million for five years. Soriano's representatives said they would come back to Washington, but never did.
"Certainly, I don't blame them," Bowden said. "We weren't going to spend the kind of money he ended up getting."
To put Soriano's contract in historical perspective, only four deals have offered more total compensation: Alex Rodriguez's $252 million for 10 years with Texas, Derek Jeter's $189 million for 10 years with the New York Yankees, Manny Ramirez's $160 million for eight years with Boston and Todd Helton's $141.5 million for 11 years with Colorado. It exceeds -- by one year and $17 million -- the benchmark deal outfielder Carlos Beltran received from the New York Mets two offseasons ago. Soriano will be 39 when the contract expires.
Thus, Soriano's departure from Washington -- where he played one season, switching to left field from second base and becoming the fourth player to hit at least 40 homers and steal at least 40 bases in the same year -- could have more impact on the rest of baseball than it does on the Nationals. Kasten, from the time he took over his position in July, wondered openly about whether spending a large portion of the team's payroll on one player made sense when the team wasn't very good with that player on the roster.
The Nationals have made their strategy clear: Grow the team through player development, save money this offseason and be ready to spend beginning in 2008, when the club is scheduled to move into a new stadium in which it should generate millions more dollars of revenue.
The impact on the market, however, could be significant, and the immediate beneficiary could be Texas outfielder Carlos Lee. Soriano and Lee, who hit 37 homers and drove in 116 runs in splitting time between the Rangers and Milwaukee, are widely considered to be the hitters that could have the biggest impact on a new team. Teams that were pursuing Soriano -- including Houston and Philadelphia -- could now focus on Lee, who is likely to benefit from Soriano's staggering contract.
Among the teams interested in Lee: the Baltimore Orioles, who were turned off by Soriano's price. But speculation among major league executives last night was that Lee might command as much as $95 million. An Orioles executive said the club was "not sure" it would be interested if the bidding went that high.
Soriano's tenure in Washington was as electric as it was fleeting. To land Soriano, Bowden sent two outfielders -- Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge -- and a minor league pitcher to Texas just more than 11 months ago, before Kasten was the team president. Analysis of Soriano's impact here could last well into his career with the Cubs given that the Nationals' compensation will be two draft picks from Chicago.
Dealing for Soriano was considered by some in baseball to be a risk, though his monstrous season -- an all-star campaign in which he hit .277 (an average brought down by a late-season slump) with 46 homers, 41 steals and 95 RBI -- made him an instant fan favorite, and his ever-present smile and work ethic made him a favorite among teammates.
But because the Nationals got off to a slow start and spent almost the entire season in last place in the National League East, Soriano became the most attractive commodity on the trade market over the summer.
Yet the July 31 deadline came and went, and Soriano remained. Now, the Cubs have an all-star player at an astronomical price, the Nationals have two draft picks that may still be in high school -- and baseball has three more months of offseason to see how many more millions can be spent.
Staff writer Jorge Arangure Jr. contributed to this report.