- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2005

With their blockbuster trade for Alfonso Soriano finally official, the Washington Nationals yesterday reached out to their newest star to make sure he’s on board with the team’s plan to move him to the outfield.

General manager Jim Bowden said he spoke by phone with Soriano last night and that both sides emerged from the conversation with a better outlook.

“We had a really good conversation,” Bowden said. “He was very positive about every issue. He’s aware of how our team is configured. We told him the same thing we’ve told everyone: We haven’t made any final decisions on what we’re going do, except that we’re going to do whatever’s in the best interest of the Nationals.”

Prohibited from contacting Soriano until the trade that sent Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge and pitching prospect Armando Galarraga to the Texas Rangers became official, Bowden immediately set out yesterday to talk to his newest acquisition. Both he and assistant GM Tony Siegle spoke on the phone with Soriano from his home in the Dominican Republic, and special assistant Jose Rijo also planned to talk to him last night.

Chief among everyone’s concern was Soriano’s well-documented stance against a position switch from second base to left field. The talented 29-year-old refused to make such a move while playing for both the Rangers and the New York Yankees in the past, but Bowden said Soriano made no blanket declarations during their conversation, the first of what is expected to be many between now and April.

“As I said to Alfonso, the important thing right now is to build a relationship with him, to build trust and faith with him,” Bowden said. “When you acquire a player and you don’t know him personally, it takes time to build that relationship. Today was the beginning of building that relationship.”

Fernando Cuza, one of Soriano’s representatives, did not return messages yesterday. Soriano has remained mostly close-mouthed from his home in the Dominican Republic, other than to tell a Texas reporter last week that “I’m not going to play the outfield.”

Bowden downplayed the potential position change that has become the major story line of this trade. He again noted that “a lot can happen between now and spring training” and that the status of incumbent but injured second baseman Jose Vidro remains unknown.

The issue may become moot if Vidro’s chronically bad right knee doesn’t heal by spring. The three-time All-Star second baseman has been rehabbing in Puerto Rico, but some club officials aren’t convinced he will be ready for the start of the season.

“I know he wants to come back and prove to Washington that he’s a guy that can play 150 games and be an All-Star caliber player again,” Bowden said earlier in the day during a conference call with reporters. “He’s on a mission right now, and, God willing, he’ll be able to come back. But I don’t think any of us are smart enough to know exactly health-wise how he’s going to be until he gets on the field and we can watch him.”

There has been speculation the Nationals ultimately might try to trade Vidro or Soriano for pitching, but Bowden said the club prefers to keep both players in the heart of a lineup that includes right fielder Jose Guillen, first baseman Nick Johnson and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He has turned down three trade inquiries from other teams about Soriano and said he may try to sign him to a long-term contract before new ownership is in place.

Washington’s more immediate task, though, is to find some reasonably priced pitching.

Outbid by others for prize free agents A.J. Burnett and Matt Morris, the Nationals still have contract offers out to five pitchers, including Kevin Millwood and Jarrod Washburn. But Bowden acknowledged yesterday the skyrocketing market on pitchers, coupled with player concerns about Washington’s ownership situation, will make it extremely difficult to land a top-tier free agent.

“I’m not confident at all,” he said. “We’re trying, but it’s a very difficult market. That’s a lot of money that teams are investing. And if it doesn’t work out, you’re stuck. But we’re going to keep trying to get pitching. That’s been our goal since the end of the season, and it hasn’t changed since.”

In all likelihood, the Nationals who are about $5million or $6million under their $60million budget at the moment will have to wait until later this winter to sign a more affordable pitcher, such as veteran right-hander Brett Tomko. That strategy worked last year, when Bowden picked up Esteban Loaiza in late January for $2.9million.

There aren’t many more open spots on the roster, though, because Washington filled three key holes yesterday.

The Nationals signed utilityman Robert Fick to a one-year, $850,000 contract. The 31-year-old, a career .260 hitter with four clubs, will back up at first base and both corner outfield positions and serve as third-string catcher. He joins Marlon Anderson and Damian Jackson on a revamped bench that should be more productive and versatile than last year.

“The idea there was to improve the depth, the flexibility and really try to improve our left-handed pinch-hitting, which really wasn’t acceptable last year,” Bowden said.

Washington also re-signed Joey Eischen to a one-year, $1.3million deal, keeping the popular left-hander in the bullpen after he posted a 3.22 ERA in 57 games last season.

Finally, the Nationals signed four catchers to minor league contracts with an invitation to spring training: Wiki Gonzalez, Mike DiFelice, Alberto Castillo and Brandon Harper. All but Harper have major league experience, and all will be given a shot to earn a roster spot as Brian Schneider’s primary backup.

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