The Washington Nationals erased days of frustration and organizational angst at baseball's winter meetings by pulling off what, thus far, is the biggest trade of the week, acquiring slugging second baseman Alfonso Soriano from the Texas Rangers for outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge, plus a minor leaguer -- believed to be 24-year-old pitcher Armando Galarraga -- major league sources confirmed Wednesday night.
The deal is contingent upon Wilkerson's passing a physical exam, which was expected to take place on Thursday.
Soriano, who will turn 30 next month, represents a major new force in the middle of the Nationals' tepid offense, which ranked last in the majors in almost every significant statistical category in 2005. Although he came up through the New York Yankees' system as a shortstop and has spent the majority of his big league career at second base, the Nationals, with veteran Jose Vidro entrenched at second, will likely play him in left or center field.
Soriano hit .268 with 36 homers and 104 RBI last season, his fifth full season in the majors. Although he is considered an undisciplined hitter who strikes out roughly four times as often as he walks, his power is undeniable, as he has averaged nearly 32 homers per year since becoming a full-time player in 2001.
Soriano is also fast, as evidenced by the fact he has averaged 33 steals the past five seasons, and the Nationals will be tempted to bat him in the leadoff spot, where he has experience, and where the Nationals have no other obvious option.
Nationals GM Jim Bowden, reached late Wednesday night, would not comment on any impending deals. But he has long coveted Soriano, who is perhaps best known for being the key piece in the Yankees' trade for Alex Rodriguez prior to the 2004 season.
The Nationals have not yet spoken with Soriano regarding a potential shift to the outfield, according to a team source. He resisted a similar move in Texas. However, should Vidro take extra time to rehabilitate his nagging knee injury, or be unable to play a full season, Soriano would be an outstanding insurance policy.
While Bowden has insisted that the Nationals' prime priority is to acquire a pitcher to accompany Livan Hernandez and John Patterson at the front of the rotation, he has been obsessed with obtaining a powerful bat nearly since the day he took the job. Soriano's 36 homers in 2005 was 50 percent more than the highest total for a Nationals player -- Jose Guillen's 24.
Soriano is eligible for arbitration this offseason. He made $7.5 million in 2005 and will likely land around $10 million for 2006, which would make him the Nationals' highest-paid player. He is eligible for free agency after next season.
The loss of Wilkerson takes away the player who, when the Expos franchise moved from Montreal after the 2004 season, figured to be the face of the new Washington franchise. He was the Nationals' most significant chip to trade, and there are scouts who feel he has enormous potential.
He admirably performed whatever task Manager Frank Robinson asked of him over his first four major league seasons, filling in at center field when he was better suited for left, taking long stints at first base when Nick Johnson was injured, and even serving as the franchise's leadoff man for the bulk of the past two seasons, even though he has little speed and would have preferred to hit lower in the order.
But some of Washington's top executives felt that Wilkerson would have been exposed hitting third or fifth in the batting order. Ultimately, some of the top brass felt, he would be an ideal sixth-place hitter. Robinson, with an already-thin lineup, couldn't afford to hit him that low.
Wilkerson made $3.05 million last year, and is eligible for arbitration again in 2006, with a projected salary of about $4 million. His agent is the powerful Scott Boras, meaning that when he becomes eligible for free agency in two seasons, he could be extremely difficult to retain.
The extra $5 million to $6 million in salary the Nationals are taking on in Soriano was made possible because of a boost in the team's 2006 preliminary payroll budget -- which, at about $60 million, represents a $7 million to $8 million boost over the year before.
Wilkerson is coming off a disappointing year in which he battled myriad injuries, including a forearm problem and a shoulder injury, that most in the organization believe hampered his production.
Critics believe Wilkerson strikes out too much; 147 times in 2005 was a career low. Last season, his batting average dipped to .248, his on-base percentage to .351 (from .374) and his slugging percentage to .405 (from .498). Moreover, his home runs fell from 32 in 2004 to 11 last season, a drop due in part to moving to spacious RFK Stadium.
The Rangers, who need starting pitching more than anything else, may choose to spin Wilkerson off in a deal for a pitcher, and a league source said late Wednesday night they were involved in talks with the Toronto Blue Jays, who are known to covet Wilkerson.
Sledge was a favorite of Robinson because of his work ethic and his potential, but he played in only 20 games before he suffered a severe hamstring injury in May. In 153 major league games over two seasons, he hit .267 with 16 home runs and 70 RBI.
The teams had been discussing a deal for Soriano for about two days, with the talks intensifying during the day on Wednesday. The Rangers were shopping Soriano to other teams as well, hoping to obtain a front-line starting pitcher. But with those efforts stymied, the Nationals began to get the sense late Wednesday afternoon that the Rangers were ready to deal.