Monday, March 20, 2006

Alfonso Soriano returns to the Washington Nationals today following his stint on the bench in the World Baseball Classic with the choice of accepting a position in left field or declining it, perhaps on the grounds of delusion.

Whatever Soriano decides, his future isn’t the only one in the balance: The future of general manager Jim Bowden rides on it as well.

It doesn’t matter how many hot dogs Bowden shares with Mark Lerner or whoever owns the Nationals or how many players he signs to contract extensions. If the Soriano trade makes him look foolish, Bowden will be done in Washington — and perhaps in baseball. Bowden’s contract extension made him general manager for the rest of the 2006 season, but he could be out before that if this deal winds up a failure.

The new owner already must soothe the nerves of Nationals fans frayed by the entire relocation, ballpark and ownership fiasco engineered by Major League Baseball. How could he then retain a general manager who made such a huge mistake with a franchise that has little room for even a small one?

The trade seemed to border on irresponsible when Bowden did not get assurances from Soriano that playing the outfield, while leaving him unhappy, would not be a deal-breaker.

That is laughable considering what a horrible second baseman Soriano is. You would think he was the second coming of Roberto Alomar the way he adamantly refused to consider a position switch.

Soriano has the worst fielding percentage of any player in the past 50 years with a minimum of 650 career games at second base.

He also gets to fewer ground balls than almost anyone who played the position in that period, averaging just 4.92 chances a game. Only three others in that span — Bret Boone, Todd Walker and Marty Barrett — have a worse average, and each had a fielding percentage far better than Soriano’s.

Soriano and Bowden both stand a better chance of getting paid if Soriano plays left field. He still would rank among the top outfielders in the game offensively. He finished with 36 home runs, 104 RBI, 102 runs scored and 30 steals with the Texas Rangers last year.

Arguably, only Andruw Jones would be more productive among National League outfielders.

His defense at second base only diminishes his offensive status. A starting pitcher can count on Soriano making an error behind him at second base every other appearance, the numbers show.

But this isn’t just about Soriano. It’s about Bowden, too. When he traded for Soriano, Bowden put his credibility on the line. He has refused to back down from his decision.

“The one thing we do know is that we have a much better offense with Alfonso Soriano, and I know we have a much better team because we have Alfonso Soriano,” Bowden said at Soriano’s introductory press conference at spring training. “I will make that trade every day of my career.”

Bowden also has refused to discuss what will happen as this plays out. Here are some of the scenarios:

• Soriano refuses to play and lets the players association battle it out for him — not a likely scenario. It is doubtful the union, with negotiations coming up on a new labor deal, would be willing to fight baseball on such a basic management decision.

• Soriano refuses to play, forcing the Nationals to trade him. However, any trade partner would know the Nationals are operating from a position of desperate weakness, so the Nationals likely would not get value for Soriano. No team is willing to take on a $10 million salary before Opening Day unless it is trading one expensive problem for another.

The Rangers traded Soriano — a player who averaged 35 home runs, 97 RBI and 31 stolen bases the past four years — for Brad Wilkerson and a minor league pitcher. Wilkerson hit just 11 home runs and drove in 57 runs last year and is another damaged platoon outfielder at best. Did the Rangers get value for Soriano?

Yet Wilkerson was the only tradable commodity Bowden had, and if he squandered it on a player who won’t play, it is another consequence of the general manager’s gamble.

• Soriano is out in left field come Opening Day and produces near or at the same offensive level he has the past five years. If this happens, the gamble will have paid off, and the potential for this team to have a competitive offense takes a huge leap forward.

This is the best-case scenario, one that banks on someone convincing Soriano this would be the best thing for his future.

It certainly would be the best thing for Jim Bowden’s future.

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