- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Don’t fret, Washington baseball fans.

Alfonso Soriano could be back in a Nationals uniform in four or five years, when the new owners of the Chicago Cubs try to shed themselves of his burdensome eight-year, $136 million contract.

The Nationals, with a new ballpark and the Stan’s Club plan, should be swimming in money by then, and $17 million a season might seem a bargain at that point.

The deal made by the Cubs with the former Nationals outfielder shook the free agent market.

At least three other teams — the Angels, Dodgers and Phillies — intended to pursue Soriano before the Cubs delivered their devastating pre-emptive strike. Those teams now will find new targets, which will drive up the market for the two other big hitters available, Carlos Lee and J.D. Drew.

The Red Sox and the Orioles also benefit: Boston slugger Manny Ramirez and Baltimore shortstop Miguel Tejada now are sure to garner a lot more trade interest.

Sooner or later, a huge contract like the one the Cubs gave Soriano turns into a noose for a franchise. The Red Sox, however, are sitting pretty in this case: They have Ramirez under contract at $20 million for just two more years. And, with Soriano off the market, he is a tradable commodity.

And the Nationals? Say hello to Kory Casto, who will compete for Soriano’s spot in left field next season. Casto drove in 263 runs over 470 games in four minor league seasons. More importantly, he will cost only $380,000.

So who will get more value for their money, the Cubs or the Nationals? The chances seem pretty good for Stan’s Club.

The Cubs are in blaze-of-glory mode. They likely will be sold soon, and their general manager, Jim Hendry, is in danger of losing his job. The Cubs hired a new manager, but Lou Piniella is hardly there for the long haul. He took the job with the notion the Cubs will do what it takes to win now. The problem is Soriano probably won’t bring them much closer.

Soriano certainly will help the offense-poor Cubs score. The Cubs ranked second-to-last in the National League last season with just 716 runs. That should improve. Soriano hit 46 home runs and drove in 95 runs as a leadoff batter for the Nationals. The Cubs also return a healthy first baseman in Derrek Lee and re-signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez.

But the Phillies scored more runs than anybody in the league last year (865) and failed to make the playoffs — and they had far better pitching than the Cubs did and still do at this stage of the offseason. The Cubs finished 14th in pitching in the NL last season, and they have only Carlos Zambrano to count on next season. Forget about Mark Prior or Kerry Wood. They are done. They were an illusion, part of an era that baseball is trying to bury.

The Cubs would have a better chance of improving on their 66-96 record if they had signed Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt. (Speaking of the Cubs’ record, Soriano signed with a team worse than the Nationals, who finished 71-91. The Angels, Dodgers and Phillies are far closer to a championship than the Cubs. I guess we know where Soriano’s priorities lie).

The Cubs probably will need at least a 15-game improvement, at minimum, to make a run at the postseason. The Detroit Tigers did it this past season, improving from 71 wins to 95, but everyone knows how they did it: pitching. Nothing indicates the Cubs are remotely close to assembling a winning rotation.

But if Soriano produces his typical numbers — a 35-homer, 100-RBI season — and continues to improve as an outfielder, Chicago baseball fans probably will fall in love with him. He plays hard and with enthusiasm and connects with the fans in the stands. He likely will be a bleacher-bum favorite — unless, of course, he becomes a symbol of their frustration. Cubs fans are long past that, though. Their expectations are low.

So here’s the question: Who will win more games next season, the Cubs or the Nationals?

That should be the Nationals fans’ version of a pennant race next season because Washington won’t be getting anywhere near the postseason. The Nats vs. the Cubs. Stan’s Club vs. the Billy Goat.



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