- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — They spent more than two hours talking with each other, then more than 30 minutes talking with the media. And by the time Alfonso Soriano’s first press conference as a Washington National was complete, there was really only one question left to ask.

Aren’t we right back where we started?

It’s going to be difficult for the Nationals not to think that way when they have their first full-squad workout of the spring today. Soriano and Jose Vidro may both be in camp now, raring to go, but there’s been no resolution to the question of Soriano’s position in the field.

And it doesn’t appear there will be for a while. After a lengthy morning meeting with Soriano, his agent and several club officials, manager Frank Robinson said he’ll let the 30-year-old slugger work out at second base for the next week so he can prepare to play for his native Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. What happens when that event is over late next month and Soriano returns to Nationals camp?

“Who knows?” Robinson said. “No decision is going to be made as to whether he is going to play second base or left field today, tomorrow, the next day or when he comes back. Those decisions will be made before we leave Florida.”

Rather than make some declarative statement now about Soriano’s role with the club, the Nationals will instead wait and see how several things — most notably Vidro’s long-injured right knee — play out.

At some point, though, this saga will reach its endgame out of sheer necessity. Either Soriano will agree to the club’s request and move to left field (perhaps against his will), Vidro will not be healthy enough to play and leave second base open for Soriano or general manager Jim Bowden will be forced to trade one of the two.

“Our goal is to win and find a solution that works,” said Bowden, who has made some preliminary trade inquiries with other clubs. “Do we have the solution this moment? No. But we’re going to work towards the solution, and we’ll get one.”

Two months removed from the blockbuster trade that brought Soriano to Washington and sent outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and minor league pitcher Armando Galarraga to Texas, Robinson finally got a chance to talk to his newest star. Joined by Bowden, assistant GMs Tony Siegle and Bob Boone and Soriano’s agent (Diego Bentz), manager and player met for more than two hours at an undisclosed location away from the ballpark.

When they returned to Space Coast Stadium for their press conference, all sides spoke in positive tones and said progress was made. According to sources with knowledge of the meeting, though, little was resolved.

Soriano asked the Nationals if he could play second base until he reports for workouts with the Dominican national team March 3, and the team complied. However, despite pleas from Bowden and his associates, sources said Soriano made it abundantly clear he will not move to left field once he rejoins the team after the tournament, which ends March 20.

Soriano danced around the subject during the press conference.

“I have [12 days] to get ready to play in the world cup at second base,” he said. “So I’m not thinking about outfield right now. We have plenty of time to think about it.”

Asked if he would respect whatever decision Robinson makes, Soriano said: “Yeah, because he’s the manager. I think I have a lot of respect of Robinson. And he’s the manager.”

But if Robinson tells Soriano to play left field?

“Who knows?” Soriano responded.

Even if he agrees to the switch once he returns from the WBC, Soriano could have less than two weeks to learn the nuances of playing left field. He has only a handful of games’ experience in the outfield in his professional career, during 2001 spring training with the New York Yankees, but team officials believe it won’t take long for him to pick it up.

The Nationals did make it clear they consider Vidro their starting second baseman, and the three-time All-Star said he can’t play any other position on the diamond.

Hampered for more than two years by patellar tendinitis in his right knee, Vidro arrived in Viera yesterday looking trim and proclaimed himself 100 percent healthy. He is determined to return to his old form and because of that announced he will not play for his native Puerto Rico in the WBC, instead devoting all his attention to preparing himself for the 2006 major league season.

“This is my job. This is what I do,” the career .302 hitter said. “I have to go out and play 150-something games for the Washington Nationals. That’s my goal. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to play there.”

Vidro, 31, admitted he was surprised by the Soriano trade and expressed sympathy for his new teammate’s refusal to change positions.

“I would have done the same thing,” he said. “I would probably try to work it out. That’s a team decision. I hope that both of us can be in the lineup at the same time. That would be great, because adding Soriano to the team is very good.”

Only if the Nationals can find a way to appease both of their All-Star second basemen before Opening Day, a process that figures to go right down to the wire and will require the club to sidestep several more land mines.

For Bowden, the risk of implosion is worth it.

“I’ll make that trade every day of my career,” he said. “This is a very special baseball player with a very special combination of speed and power. … Washington is very fortunate to have Alfonso Soriano.”