- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2006

Here’s one to ponder as the Washington Nationals play the final 51 games of their miserable season: Could Alfonso Soriano actually be National League MVP?

Don’t laugh. It’s not such a far-fetched idea.

Based strictly on the numbers, Soriano is having an MVP-caliber season. Entering yesterday’s game against the San Diego Padres, he was hitting .290 with 34 homers, 71 RBI and 28 stolen bases. His 262 total bases are tops in the majors. So are his 17 outfield assists.

That alone should make him a candidate. Now, if only he played for a winning team.

There is no question a team’s success should play a key role in determining a player’s MVP worth. And with the Nationals slogging their way to an almost-certain 90-loss season, it’s difficult to suggest Soriano has done much to help this club in the only statistic that actually counts.

But that doesn’t mean the 30-year-old slugger hasn’t had a profound impact in his first season in Washington. It may be hard to detect in the won-lost column, but rest assured, it’s there.

As the Nationals have learned throughout the season, their chances for success grow exponentially when Soriano succeeds on the field. In their 48 wins, he’s hitting .368 with 22 homers, 49 RBI, a .456 on-base percentage and .813 slugging percentage. In their 61 losses, he’s hitting .230 with 12 homers, 22 RBI, a .282 on-base percentage and .423 slugging percentage.

But his impact goes far beyond that. He has become, in a very short time, the most-respected and most-beloved player in Washington’s clubhouse. Not as much for his numbers as for his tireless work ethic, positive attitude and leadership by example.

Just about every player in that clubhouse insists Soriano is one of the hardest workers they’ve ever seen. Whether in the weight room, the video room or in the batting cage, he’s always looking to improve his game. That kind of attitude rubs off on teammates.

So, too, does his ever-present smile, the one that never went away, even during his three weeks on the trading block. Despite the constant rumors and his supposedly pending move to another city, Soriano never once stopped talking to reporters, never once stopped laughing and joking with teammates, never once stopped playing as hard as he could on the field.

And if anyone still doubted just how important he is to the Nationals, they needed only to be in the clubhouse in San Francisco last Monday when his teammates gave him a standing ovation and showered him with gifts upon learning he had survived the trade deadline.

There’s a word for players like that: valuable.

This will, of course, always come down to a question of individual performance vs. team performance, and there will always be a faction of MVP voters who don’t believe in handing out the award to someone from a losing team.

And that’s the right stance to take … most of the time. If there’s a genuinely qualified MVP candidate from a winning team, he should get the award. But what if there isn’t a clear-cut choice in an incredibly down year for the NL?

Let’s look at some of the other top candidates. The Cardinals’ Albert Pujols certainly tops every list and the reigning MVP deserves consideration just about every season he plays. But after his phenomenal start, Pujols has cooled off. He hasn’t been the same since returning from the disabled list, and his numbers (34 homers, 89 RBI, .319 average) aren’t head-and-shoulders above Soriano’s, especially when adding Soriano’s speed to the equation).

The Mets have the league’s best record and have two players in the MVP mix: outfielder Carlos Beltran (33 homers, 97 RBI, .284 average) and third baseman David Wright (22 homers, 82 RBI, .308 average). Both are having outstanding seasons in their own right, but has either been absolutely invaluable to his team?

There will be others in the mix, from the Phillies’ Ryan Howard and Chase Utley to the Astros’ Lance Berkman. But there really isn’t a clear-cut, hands-down MVP choice. So maybe Soriano has a chance.

There is precedence for this: three players from losing teams have won MVP: Andre Dawson of the sixth-place Cubs in 1987, Cal Ripken of the sixth-place Orioles in 1991 and Alex Rodriguez of the fourth-place Rangers in 2003. Who’s to say Soriano of the fifth-place Nationals in 2006 couldn’t join them?

With plenty more bad baseball on the docket for the next month and a half, it’s certainly one positive thing worth pondering.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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