- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

The only person who has created more baseball debate in this city than Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden is low-key and soft-spoken Alfonso Soriano. The two have been thunder and lightning, starting with the day Bowden acquired Soriano from the Texas Rangers, which resulted in the controversy over Soriano’s refusal to move from second base to left field in spring training.

Since then, Soriano has created thunder on the field with his bat and Bowden delivered a lightning bolt Thursday with the blockbuster trade that brought Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez to the Nationals. But now the two are linked again in another stormy debate over whether the dynamic duo should break up.

Nationals fans are arguing over the merits of trying to re-sign Soriano or trade him for younger players and prospects.

This argument, mind you, is taking place over a last-place team. And, no matter which side wins, the result at the end of the season likely still will be a last-place team, even with the addition of Kearns and Lopez. You can create all the thunder you want in the lineup, but without someone throwing some heat — pitchers for you not following along in your baseball-weather metaphor playbooks — it will be a lot of noise without much to show for it.

This is why Alfonso Soriano has to ride off in the sunset (OK, I’ll turn off the Weather Channel).

Fans are infatuated with Soriano, who will be a free agent at the end of the season and is expected to seek more than the $10 million he is making this season — maybe something in the range of five years, $65 million to $75 million. Statistically (.272 average, 27 home runs, 56 RBI this season, 159 home runs, 461 RBI and 167 stolen bases in the previous five), he would appear to warrant that kind of money.

But it’s doubtful that it will be there, because the numbers don’t tell the whole story. If a team is going to pay a player that kind of money, it has to be someone who you can consistently rely on — someone who can steadily carry the team, not carry it and then drag it down like Soriano does with his streaks and slumps. He can’t be the No. 1 guy on a team with World Series hopes, and teams other than the Yankees don’t pay $13 million to $15 million a year for second bananas.

The Nationals can’t play that game. They want that $10 million a year or more to be available down the line to lock up the players who fans fall in love with, not become infatuated with in a summer romance. And while fans may be enamored with Soriano, let’s face it, they are falling in love with Ryan Zimmerman. He’s theirs. He never wore any other major league uniform. The development is almost as satisfying as the results.

In baseball, fans get much more out of rooting for one of their own — a kid who is breaking in with the major league club, the young phenom who grows into a major league star right before their eyes. They have more of a connection than when a free agent comes to a team.

One of the most distasteful parts of free agency is watching a kid that was once unknown but then became an outstanding major league player leave. No one knows that bitterness more than the fans in Montreal, who saw an All-Star team of players come up through the system, like Larry Walker and Moises Alou, and then leave. That is far more painful than watching a player who is acquired by trade — however talented he may be — leave after less than a year.

Kearns and Lopez don’t fall into that category, since they are already established major leaguers. But at 26, they are still young and if either one becomes a perennial All-Star, they won’t be remembered for their years in Cincinnati. They will be part of Washington baseball lore.

The pitching help that Bowden must acquire by trading Soriano could fall into that category as well. Fans could be watching the start of a career of one or two pitchers who could be an Atlanta version of John Smoltz and Tom Glavine — the anchors of the Braves legacy that Nationals team president Stan Kasten helped build.

If this team wants to compete when the new ballpark opens in 2008, it needs starting pitching. John Patterson’s future remains uncertain with his arm problems. And despite Mike O’Connor’s guts, the Nationals need some studs somewhere, and there are none in their system, at least none who are close.

It won’t be pretty in the second half of the season on the field. The starting pitching is still a wreck, especially if Livan Hernandez also is dealt. And the bullpen, with Gary Majewski and Bill Bray gone in the Kearns-Lopez trade, will go from bad to worse. But you will be watching the start of a home-grown team that, given the right moves, should develop into a perennial contender.

Think of it as a garden. What tastes sweeter — store-bought tomatoes or the ones grown in your own backyard? You walk out there every day and check to see how they are growing, and then one day they are ripe for the picking, or you pick up some freshly grown tomatoes from another gardener (I switched to the Home and Garden Channel).

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