Nats' López Shows Range, for Better or Worse

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, April 3 -- Something significant occurred Thursday in the accomplished and turbulent baseball career of Felipe López, though exactly what has yet to be determined.

By jogging out to left field at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, the loneliest spot he has visited in a decade of professional ball, he signaled something about his attitude and character to the Washington Nationals, although he also risked signaling something far different about his skills to the rest of baseball.

After 589 big league games as a shortstop, 82 as a third baseman and 55 as a second baseman, López, 27, borrowed an outfielder's glove from a teammate and spent the first afternoon of his career in the vast expanse of left field, during the Nationals' 8-7 loss to the Phillies. He caught four fly balls without incident, played a sinking liner deftly on the short-hop as if it were a double-play grounder and went 1 for 5 at the plate.

From left field, the fans in the bleachers seem mighty close. The nearest object in his line of vision was the back of Cristian Guzmán's uniform, while Guzmán roamed a position, shortstop, where López was once considered one of the most promising young players in baseball.

"His attitude was amazing," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said of López's acceptance of the move, which was first broached to him the day before. "He said: 'I'll pitch if you want. I can pitch [as well as] any of those guys in there.' "

But at this point, what else was he supposed to do besides accept an opportunity to get five at-bats and three hours in the sunshine? At a point when he is entering both the prime of his career and -- following this season -- the promised land of free agency, López, an all-star just three seasons ago, has found himself tethered to the Nationals' bench, while Guzmán mans shortstop and veteran Ronnie Belliard patrols second base.

"It's another position I'm going to learn," López said hopefully following a pregame tutoring session from assistant coach Jerry Morales. "Play until I'm 40. I'll learn everything."

The risk for López is in the way the move is perceived around the game by the other front-office executives who will determine López's open-market value for what ought to be the biggest contract he will ever sign. The euphemistic view is that he may increase his value by showing he can play an additional position. But another way of looking at it is that this makes López a utility player.

"I don't consider myself a utility player," López said after the game, without a hint of indignation, as if he has considered the question already.

He may play left field only a handful of games, until regular starter Wily Mo Peña comes off the disabled list, but the number of games doesn't matter as much as the simple act of going out there in the first place.

The parallels between López's situation and that of Alfonso Soriano's in 2006 are both eerie and instructive. One reason Soriano initially resisted the Nationals' attempts to move him from second base -- where he had played the bulk of his career -- to left field was because, like López, he was a year from free agency and feared losing much of his value by trading a premium infield position for a generic outfield one.

It turns out Soriano had nothing to worry about. He proved himself a capable left fielder and wound up signing an eight-year, $136 million contract with the Chicago Cubs after the season. But López clearly is not the slugger Soriano was.

A more precise comparison might be Jerry Hairston Jr., who was playing second base and batting leadoff for the Baltimore Orioles in 2003 -- and leading the league in stolen bases -- when he broke his right foot in May. By the next spring, the Orioles were suggesting he learn the outfield, and essentially he has been a utility player ever since, last seen signing a minor league contract with Cincinnati after getting 159 at-bats at six positions for the Texas Rangers in 2007.

"He's got a good enough track record at second and short," Acta said of López, "that people will still think of him as an everyday guy."

But it is fair to ask what will make other teams see López as an everyday player in 2009 if the Nationals don't in 2008.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company