- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

He heard it Friday night as he greeted fans entering RFK Stadium. He heard it again Saturday as he laced all four of his extra-base hits. And he heard it yesterday as he circled the bases following his team-leading 31st home run of the season.

Fans want Alfonso Soriano to stay in Washington.

The question is: Do the Nationals want Soriano to stay?

The team has given every indication it planned to trade the left fielder before the July 31 trade deadline. Then, incoming team president Stan Kasten decided to throw a little wrench into the process yesterday, revealing he has had “numerous discussions” with both Soriano and his agent, Diego Bentz, over the last month.

Kasten’s surprise announcement came in response to a story that ran in Thursday’s USA Today in which Bentz was quoted as saying “we haven’t talked.”

So Kasten gathered reporters in the RFK Stadium press box during the fourth inning of the Nationals’ 7-1 win over the Chicago Cubs and denied Bentz’s claims.

“We have had numerous conversations,” Kasten said, “Both Alfonso and I personally and Diego and I in a lot more depth and a lot more in number.”

Kasten, as is his wont, wouldn’t reveal any specifics about the conversations he has had with Soriano and Bentz. It should be noted he didn’t say the discussions have included any formal contract offers.

“No numbers,” Soriano said following yesterday’s game. “No, no, no, I don’t think so. My agent hasn’t told me.”

Bentz didn’t return messages left for him yesterday, but he said during the All-Star break that he hadn’t had any substantive talks with the Nationals and that he didn’t think any were possible until new ownership takes over.

Well, new ownership officially takes over today. So there doesn’t appear to be anything left to prevent the two sides from exchanging dollar figures if they want to … aside from the incredibly tight time frame they now face.

The trade deadline is a week away, and while there’s no reason the Nationals can’t wait until August or later to sign Soriano long-term, doing so would cost them the ability to acquire several top prospects in return.

Washington can wait until the offseason to negotiate and — provided the team offers Soriano arbitration — receive two compensatory draft picks if he signed elsewhere as a free agent.

But that’s taking a big chance. Draft picks are even less of a sure thing than top prospects, and the Nationals believe they can acquire two or three of those in a deadline deal with any of the half-dozen or so teams that have inquired about Soriano.

So the team appears to have two choices: sign Soriano within the next week or trade him while his value is at an all-time high.

Soriano said he doubts a complex contract could be worked out in seven days.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think that my agent and the club, they have to talk a lot. I think there’s still time, but I think if we have something working, we need a little bit more time.”

There are plenty of obstacles standing in the way of a last-minute deal, and they don’t all involve money. Soriano is making $10 million this season in arbitration, and considering the kind of career year he’s having, it would not be unreasonable to ask for $15 million or more a year.

More important to Soriano, though, is a sense of stability, something’s he has never had in his career. He reiterated yesterday he wants a no-trade clause in his next contract, something Kasten said he has never agreed to in his lengthy career running professional sports franchises.

“I have a philosophy about that,” Kasten said. “You can give a guy what you want. What you can’t give away is your power to improve your club. And we all know the examples.”

So where does that leave everyone? Pretty much right back where it started. Soriano says he wants to stay with the Nationals. The Nationals say they would like Soriano to stay. Jim Bowden continues to take daily calls from general managers from every pennant-contending team in baseball and tells them he wants two or three cream-of-the-crop prospects in return for a guy on pace to hit 50 homers and steal 40 bases.

And barring some stunning, last-minute turn of events, Soriano will find himself wearing another team’s uniform next week, soaking in the adulation of another city’s fan base while Washington turns an eye toward the future.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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