Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Washington Nationals’ second base logjam cleared up a bit last night when the club was expected to cut ties with veteran Junior Spivey, but that long-planned move does little to fix the team’s increasingly sticky situation involving newcomer Alfonso Soriano.

The debate over Soriano’s role with the Nationals has heated up again after the 29-year-old slugger reiterated his refusal to move to the outfield and suggested he doesn’t plan to re-sign with Washington after the 2006 season.

“I don’t want to change,” Soriano told the Associated Press on Monday night at a dinner held for major leaguers by Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez. “If I haven’t done it before, I won’t do it now.”

Soriano, acquired last week from the Texas Rangers in a blockbuster trade for outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and minor league pitcher Armando Galarraga, added he doesn’t think he will be comfortable playing in the National League for the first time in his career and that he plans to become a free agent next year and sign with an American League club.

Nationals officials have downplayed Soriano’s public comments since the trade, saying the two sides engaged in “positive” conversations when they spoke for the first time last week.

They also point out the whole issue may become moot if incumbent second baseman Jose Vidro, who has battled knee injuries for more than two years, is not healthy by Opening Day. And even if Vidro returns to form this spring, there’s a chance the Nationals could try to trade him and leave second base open.

Wherever he winds up, Soriano will wear a Washington uniform in 2006. The club ensured as much by tendering one-year contracts before last night’s midnight deadline to him and five other players eligible for arbitration: catcher Brian Schneider, first baseman Nick Johnson, infielder Jamey Carroll, outfielder Marlon Byrd and reliever Luis Ayala.

The Nationals did not offer contracts to Spivey or reliever T.J. Tucker, though Tucker (who is still recovering from major elbow surgery) has signed a minor league deal to remain with the organization.

Spivey never figured in Washington’s 2006 plans, and his fate was sealed once the Soriano trade was completed. The 30-year-old second baseman was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in June for pitcher Tomo Ohka to fill in while Vidro recovered from a torn ankle tendon. But he hit just .221 in 28 games and then fractured his right forearm in a freak, pregame accident.

Spivey made $2.125million last season, and that number would have gone up slightly in arbitration this winter, so the Nationals planned to “non-tender” him and let him become a free agent.

Schneider, Johnson, Byrd and Ayala were slam-dunks to be offered arbitration, and the club is negotiating one-year deals with all of them.

Carroll’s return was less certain because it appeared he was getting squeezed out of a job this winter with the acquisitions of Soriano, Marlon Anderson and Damian Jackson.

The popular infielder, though, has long been one of manager Frank Robinson’s favorite players and according to club sources has been offered a one-year contract worth about $600,000 to return for his fourth full season with the franchise.

Meanwhile, free agent pitcher Tony Armas rejected the Nationals’ arbitration offer late Monday night, but the two sides have until Jan. 8 to negotiate an incentive-laden, one-year contract to return. If Armas doesn’t sign by then, he would be unable to join the club until May 1.

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