DALLAS — Alfonso Soriano will be, without question, the biggest name and most-talented player to wear a Washington Nationals uniform.
But that’s the only statement anyone can make with any certainty about the blockbuster deal Nationals general manager Jim Bowden pulled off late Wednesday night with the Texas Rangers.
Soriano’s acquisition, while a boon to Washington’s punchless lineup, raises nearly as many questions as it answers:
Will the 29-year-old slugger, a second baseman for all of his major-league career, be willing to shift to left field at his new team’s request?
Will incumbent second baseman Jose Vidro’s chronically bad knee prevent him from playing and allow Soriano to move back to his natural position?
Will Soriano, a free agent at the end of the 2006 season, want to sign a long-term deal to stay with the Nationals?
Will the three players the Nationals traded away — outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and minor-league pitcher Armando Galarraga — realize their potential and enjoy greater success in Texas than Soriano will in spacious RFK Stadium?
And do the Nationals still have the resources to fill their roster’s other gaping holes: starting pitching and a leadoff hitter?
These were the factors Bowden and his front-office cohorts had to weigh during this week’s winter meetings before finally agreeing to the deal around 11:30 p.m. EST Wednesday.
Because the trade won’t become official until Wilkerson passes a physical with the Rangers on Monday, Bowden could not formally comment on it yesterday as he departed the Wyndham Anatole hotel. But Washington’s brazen GM indicated he was more than willing to take those risks in exchange for a star of Soriano’s caliber.
“If a certain trade were to happen, we’d be very pleased,” Bowden said. “It’s very difficult to acquire one of the top offensive players in the game, and he’s certainly one of the top 10.”
Soriano’s career numbers put him in that discussion. In five full seasons with the Rangers and New York Yankees, he’s averaged 32 homers, 94 RBI, a .282 average, 33 stolen bases and 132 strikeouts. Last season, he clubbed 36 homers and a career-high 104 RBI while batting .268.
But can he put up comparable numbers playing at RFK, one of the majors’ least-favorable hitting parks?
The greater concern surrounding Soriano is in the field. Even at second base, he’s seen as somewhat of a liability, committing an average of 21 errors in the last five seasons. He’s never played the outfield in a major-league game and has expressed strong dissension at such a move in the past.
Several sources close to Soriano said yesterday he may flat-out refuse the switch to left field, and he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “I have the same position as I always had with Texas. I said that I’m not going to change positions. I don’t think[the Nationals] want me to play the outfield. I think if they traded for me, it was to play second base.”
The Nationals have not spoken to Soriano about his role, but Bowden yesterday stressed that his newest acquisition must be willing to play left field if asked. Bowden drew comparisons to his 1994 Cincinnati Reds, who asked Tony Fernandez to move to third base upon joining the club so All-Star Barry Larkin could remain at shortstop. That club led the NL Central when the player strike prematurely ended the season.
“When we get to that point and we have to make decisions, there will be unhappy people that we have to try to make happy,” Bowden said. “But our job is to win. And our job is to have a team, not individuals. There’s a lot of ifs. A lot can happen between now and spring training with other trades, with health, with all kinds of things.”
Which raises the question of Vidro’s balky right knee. He continues to rehabilitate in his native Puerto Rico, and club officials say he does not need surgery. Privately, though, members of the organization doubt he’ll be ready to play this spring and that he may never return to his pre-injury form.
Under that scenario, Soriano would be appeased and play second base full-time … at least through the 2006 season.
After that, he’s set to become a free agent for the first time in his career. He’ll make about $10 million in his final season of arbitration, after which he could command a long-term deal in excess of $15 million a year.
Nationals officials insist signing Soriano to an extension will be one of their first priorities once new ownership is in place, but there’s no guarantee Soriano will want to stay in the District.
News of the trade came as a surprise to the now ex-Nationals players, particularly Wilkerson. Promoted as the face of the organization upon its relocation from Montreal, he quickly won over fans by hitting for the cycle in the season’s second game, but battled injuries and wound up batting just .248 with 11 homers and 57 RBI.
“It’s a big shock,” said Wilkerson, who will spend the weekend on vacation in the Bahamas before coming to Texas to undergo his physical. “But I have nothing bad to say. Being a part of the first team to play in Washington, that’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Said teammate Ryan Church, who could now find himself as the Nationals’ starting center fielder: “Wilky was like one of the last Expos around. That’s the biggest surprise to me. You talk about the face of the Expos and Nationals, his face comes up.”
Note … Washington lost one player in yesterday’s Rule 5 draft, Class AAA pitcher Chris Booker, who was selected by the Detroit Tigers and then traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Nationals acquired three players in the minor-league portion of the draft: second baseman Brandon Powell (from the Royals) and right-handers Jose Sanchez (Giants) and Josh Perrault (Diamondbacks).