By Benjamin Kabak Talking Baseball
Blame everyone week continues here on Talking Baseball. After yesterday's indictment of Tony La Russa and his involvement in the Steroid Era, I want to turn my attention to baseball's - and the District of Columbia's - latest soap opera: the Alfonso Soriano/Left Field Saga.
So far, what we know is that the Nationals acquired All Star Second Baseman (which is a voted honor and doesn't always reflect reality) Alfonso Soriano from the Texas Rangers in exchange for Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge, and Armando Galarraga. Soriano, 30, has shown flashes of brilliance in his career. He has the rare combination of speed and power. However, he has no plate discipline and seems to have problems staying focused during the course of a game.
When the Nationals landed Soriano, they did so with the intent of turning the poor-fielding middle infielder into a left fielder. Soriano, however, would have none of it. He announced in December that he would not switch to the outfield. Despite his erratic fielding, he takes pride in considering himself a second baseman. He reiterated this stance numerous times over the off-season and has maintained this stance since 2001 when the Yankees tried him in left field for a few days.
Yesterday, this conflict came to head. Soriano, back in Viera for Spring Training after the World Baseball Classic, refused to take the field with his name penciled in as the left fielder. He was pulled from the game before it started, but the incident is not over.
According to Nationals GM Jim Bowden, Soriano will be in the lineup later today as the starting left fielder. If he does not take the field then, the team will attempt to place him on the disqualified list. The disqualified list is a barely-used list maintained, as far as I can tell, by the Commissioner's Office. A team can request a player be put on the disqualified list. If the Commissioner approves this request, that player does not accrue playing time or money for the duration of the time on the list. The player can then be removed from the list when he agrees to play for his team.
For Soriano, landing on the disqualified list would probably be nothing less than a disaster. Soriano is a free agent after this season. If he were to sit out the season over this dispute - an unlikely outcome - he would not become a free agent, and he would not collect the $10 million coming to him this season. His reputation as a self-centered player, already fairly entrenched, would grow. Because of these extreme circumstances, I would expect to see a very unhappy Alfonso Soriano take the field in Jupiter later this evening. He won't like it, but he will be there.
So as this debacle plays itself out, who's to blame? It's not as clear-cut an issue as it seems on the surface.
First, Alfonso Soriano is by no means innocent in this saga. His refusal to switch positions after his employer has asked him to do so shows just how selfish he is. He is not a very good second baseman, and everyone in baseball has recognized that. He knows that he is more valuable to a team as a power-hitting second baseman than as a 25-home run left fielder, and I suspect that his looming free agency is playing a role in this tale.
Yet, it shouldn't. When Soriano hits free agency in eight months, I think he will find himself to be a lukewarm commodity. He will be nearing his 31st birthday with his most productive days behind him. He has the "unfocused" tag attached to him and is quickly adding "selfish" to his list of adjectives. His on-base percentage has been woeful, and he is a horrible lead-off hitter. If his power ends up being a product of Texas rather than of his ability, Soriano probably won't even see the $10 million he is set to earn this year.
Furthermore, Soriano's stature in the game is declining. He takes pride in his Dominican roots, but he was benched during the WBC due to his fielding and hitting failures. He tried to impress everyone with his handling of second base during the tournament and failed. His is a sinking ship.
But for all of Soriano's faults, he is not the only one who comes off dirty in this tale. Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden is on the hot seat for this one. According to reports in yesterday's Washington Post, Bowden knew that Soriano did not want to switch positions. He made the trade against the urges of others in the Nationals organization and did so knowing that the Rangers knew Soriano would not switch positions. Furthermore, Bowden did not attempt to speak with Soriano or his agent before the deal was made. Rather, he waited until after Soriano was a member of the Nations to broach the subject.
So now, according to The Post, members of the Nationals organization view the trade as "a mistake." The Nationals are in no position to trade Soriano. They have a $10-million problem that they need to get off their hands and do not have much bargaining leverage. It's doubtful they would get a player who could replace Soriano in name or ability.
So as both Bowden and Soriano can shoulder the blame, what happens next? In all likelihood, we'll have resolution tonight. Soriano will either take left field this afternoon or he will be placed on the disqualified list. If I were in charge of the Players' Association, I would urge Soriano to take the field. The last thing baseball needs now, on the eve of negotiations over the Basic Agreement, is a power struggle between Major League Baseball and one of the game's more popular players in both American and the Dominican Republic.
Meanwhile, it would behoove Jim Bowden to take this is a lesson. As the Washington Times pointed out yesterday, the next few days will determine Bowden's future in baseball. Either this trade will make him look foolish or he will be able to negotiate a settlement with Soriano.
As this conflict rushes headlong to a conclusion in a few hours, baseball fans are left with another example of a short-sighted trade. While some fans are quick to signal out Soriano as selfish, there is plenty of blame to go around. Jim Bowden dropped the ball on this trade, and Soriano should reevaluate his priorities.
The following was published today on Talking Baseball, a blog on baseball updated every weekday and maintained by Benjamin Kabak.
Tue 03/21/06, 3:45 pm EST