- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Alfonso Soriano, as expected, did not take the field yesterday for the Washington Nationals’ opening exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, a 9-1 loss that had none of the excitement of last year’s spring debut.

Soriano would have been of limited use, anyway: He brought only one glove — a second baseman’s — to camp, a symbol of his intention to not play the position the Nationals plan for him, left field.

Here’s a tip for manager Frank Robinson: If and when Soriano ever plays second base, tell him to leave his glove in the dugout. You would be better off if he went out there without it.

A second baseman’s glove in Soriano’s hands is like a microphone in the hands of Ashlee Simpson. Soriano is described as a four-time All-Star second baseman, but really he is a four-time All-Star hitter. Claiming he is an All-Star second baseman is like calling Cher a Grammy-award winning singer.

Soriano, who came up as a shortstop but was moved to second base by the Yankees, has committed 106 errors in 762 career games at second. That comes out to about one error every seven games, or close to an error a week.

With a .971 fielding percentage, he is the worst-fielding second baseman in the last 50 years among players who have played a minimum of 650 games at the position, tied with Joey Cora and Gary Sutherland. If he continues to play second base, Soriano surely will leave those two behind and have the bottom spot all to himself.

What is astounding, though, is he is also tied for the highest-paid second baseman in the history of baseball. That’s right, the lowly Washington Nationals, baseball’s 12-step program, are right at the top when it comes to paying second basemen.

Roberto Alomar never made $10 million. His highest annual paycheck was $8 million. Bret Boone once made $9 million. Craig Biggio came close in 2003, making $9.75 million. Only Jeff Kent, in 2001 with the Astros, has matched Soriano’s $10 million paycheck. (Kent, hardly a wizard at second base, is 62 places ahead of Soriano on the career fielding rankings for second baseman).

Heck, bring the $7 million annual paycheck for Jose Vidro (66 errors in 929 games, ranked 19th, or 100 places, ahead of Soriano on the fielding rankings) into the picture, and the bargain-basement Nationals are paying their second basemen $17 million. That’s about $2 million more than the team is paying its entire group of starting pitching candidates.

And remember, Soriano wanted $12 million this year. He lost the arbitration hearing for his 2006 salary and had to settle for the record $10 million the Nationals offered. So this could have been an even worse obscenity.

Soriano is one of those players who has benefited from baseball’s system of arbitration — and from being in the right place at the right time. His offensive numbers were so good — he hit 28 home runs and had 91 RBI in 2004 and 36 home runs and 104 RBI last year — the Texas Rangers had to pay him a combined $12.9 million the past two seasons. What were they going to do, release him? The guy they traded Alex Rodriguez for in 2004? What would they have to show for that?

Now they have Brad Wilkerson to show for it. Texas was eager to dump a so-called four-time All-Star second baseman with such impressive numbers, and they found a savior in the Nationals.

But the gravy train is about to stop for Soriano. He will be a free agent next season, and someone needs to make this clear to this young man: No one is going to pay him, let’s say, $40 million or $50 million over the next four or five years to play second base. No one will be willing to do that to a pitching staff.

You can live with a butcher in the corners of the outfield, if he is a great offensive player. You can’t do it at second base.

Robinson spoke the other day about the value of defense at second base. He was not specifically asked about Soriano, nor was he specifically talking about Soriano. What he spoke was the truth.

“The shortstop and the second baseman are the guys that almost have to move on every ball that is hit in the infield, and turn on the double play,” Robinson said. “When you miss a sure double play, when the pitcher has made a pitch and you should turn this double play without any problem, and you don’t, that is a mental letdown to the pitcher. You are giving the other team an extra out they haven’t earned, and that makes it tough.

“You may get out of that inning, but it turns the batting order over a little bit or brings someone else up to the plate later on in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning that should not have been at the plate. So you always want to be strong up the middle, make all the routine plays, and then occasionally make the tough plays.

“When the ball is hit to the second baseman or shortstop, routine-type ground ball, you shouldn’t have to sit there and say, ‘Oh, I hope he makes the play.’ You should sit there and be surprised if he doesn’t make that play. That is what you want from your middle infielders. That is what you have to have from your middle infielders.”

If Alfonso Soriano really wants to cash in next year and get the big contract, the best thing he could do for himself is borrow a left fielder’s glove and get rid of the second baseman’s. Maybe he could send it to the Hall of Fame, a historic relic of the highest-paid — and worst — second baseman in modern times.

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