The Washington Nationals arrived at baseball's winter meetings five days ago with a modest amount to spend on 2006 payroll, an acute need for starting pitching -- and no owner or clearly defined future. They left Thursday afternoon with significantly less payroll room, a star hitter who plays a position where they had no opening -- and, of course, still no owner.
How the acquisition of slugging second baseman Alfonso Soriano from the Texas Rangers fits into the Nationals' uncertain future was on the minds of many of the baseball executives who departed Thursday into the frigid Texas afternoon.
"It's been 12 hours now" since the deal went down, one American League executive said Thursday, "and I'm still not quite sure what it means."
The trade -- which sent outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge, plus pitching prospect Armando Galarraga, to the Rangers -- remains unofficial pending Wilkerson's physical exam for the Rangers. Still, word spread rapidly through the hotel late Wednesday night, igniting a week that had been quiet for baseball in general, and for the Nationals specifically.
Soriano, 30, will be the highest-paid and highest-profile National next season, when the franchise must face the possibility of a drop-off in interest and attendance following the honeymoon season of 2005. But Soriano is also only one year away from free agency, and may be too expensive to keep beyond the 2006 season, even with new ownership presumably in place.
Still, while Soriano no doubt adds a unique injection of offense and speed to the Nationals' power-starved attack -- he has averaged 32 homers and 33 stolen bases in five seasons as a full-time player -- there are also plenty of reasons, financial as well as baseball reasons, why it would create more questions than answers about the Nationals' motives.
First, Soriano's favored position, second base, is already filled by veteran mainstay Jose Vidro, and Soriano, who is considered a below-average defensive second baseman, has resisted previous attempts to move him to the outfield -- as the Nationals say they plan to do. If anything, his resistance could grow even more fierce given his impending free agency and the fact slugging second basemen have more value than slugging corner outfielders.
"I'm going to play second base," Soriano told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Thursday. "I don't think they want me to play the outfield. I think that if they traded for me, it's to play second base. Obviously I have the control. Of course I'm not going to play the outfield."
One Rangers official defended Soriano, saying, "He is a good guy. He's certainly not a malcontent." But, he added, "They're going to have a big problem if they try to move him [to the outfield]."
Also, in taking on Soriano, a four-time all-star who is expected to earn around $10 million next season, the Nationals have spent a significant portion of the $7 million to $8 million in extra payroll space they were granted by Major League Baseball, which continues to own and operate the team as it seeks an owner. That leaves little money (and few marketable players) to use to acquire starting pitching, which team officials acknowledge they desperately need.
Another complication for the Nationals and Soriano: In a normal situation, this would be the time to try to sign Soriano to a long-term contract -- a full year before he could hit the free agent market. But that almost certainly won't occur until new ownership is in place, and only then if the winning group wants to keep Soriano.
Hanging over every transaction the Nationals make is the franchise's uncertain status, with Major League Baseball still acting as its owners and the D.C. Council still haggling with baseball officials about a lease for a new stadium. Fans have expressed frustration over having to pay increased ticket prices for a team that, before this week, had only lost players to free agency and looked as if it would struggle to match last year's 81-81 mark.
Team officials said that the budget, handed down by MLB, is expected to be around $60 million for player payroll, an increase from the $52.8 million the Nationals spent last year. And even with the extra money, Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden acknowledged Wednesday that he was having a difficult time enticing free agents to play in Washington because they didn't know who they would be working for in the future.
Several baseball executives on Thursday speculated the Nationals would make another move to alleviate the second base problem, whether that is spinning Soriano off in another trade, or trying to deal Vidro -- either of which presumably would target starting pitching. Yet another executive theorized that the trade was merely Bowden's rash response to the mounting frustration of being unable to sign a front-line free-agent starting pitcher this week, despite multiple attempts.
Bowden -- while careful not to discuss the Soriano deal specifically, because it is not yet official, and MLB rules prohibit officials from commenting on other teams' personnel -- played down the possibility of a conflict over the player being asked to move to the outfield. Bowden compared the situation to Alex Rodriguez's acceptance of a move to third base when he was traded to the New York Yankees before the 2004 season.
"We don't always get [to play] the exact positions we want sometimes," Bowden said before leaving Thursday. "But you do what's best for the organization to win. There will be unhappy people, but our job is to win. . . . A lot can happen between now and spring training."
The Nationals did not contact Soriano's representatives before making the trade to discuss the position switch, but team officials seem to be well aware they may be getting a very unhappy player -- not only because of the move to the outfield, but because Soriano is also moving from an extreme hitter's park, Texas's Ameriquest Field, to an extreme pitcher's park, Washington's RFK Stadium.
Last season, in fact, Soriano hit 69 percent of his homers (25 of 36) and collected 70 percent of his RBI (73 of 104) at Texas's Ameriquest Field, while batting only .224 with a .265 on-base percentage on the road. Wilkerson's OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) on the road in 2005 was 112 points higher (.751 versus .639) than Soriano's.
Given the disparity in the hitter-friendliness of the teams' respective stadiums, one rival executive -- who, like the others, spoke on the condition of anonymity -- said, "I'll bet you money [that] Wilkerson hits more homers in Texas next year than Soriano hits in Washington."
Still, the team believes it has all the leverage in the event the situation escalates into conflict.
"What is he going to do, sit out [the year]?" said one Nationals official, when asked about the move to the outfield. The same official also boasted, "Jim Bowden has never backed down from a fight."
Staff writers Barry Svrluga and Jorge Arangure Jr. contributed to this report.