Monday, June 12, 2006

Who says Washington isn’t a baseball town?

Sports talk radio listeners have heard a barrage of callers debating the merits of re-signing Nationals slugger Alfonso Soriano versus trading him during the last week.

It’s the kind of talk normally expected in cities like Boston and Chicago, but now it’s come here. And for that, you can thank (or blame) Soriano and the Nationals for their stunning late May/early June turnaround.

All of a sudden, everyone’s asking the same question: Can we keep Soriano, please?

Let’s cut right to the chase: No.

Sorry if that was a tad harsh, but unfortunately it’s the truth. As tempting as the thought of re-signing Soriano might be, it’s just not likely to happen. Let’s explain …

Soriano, a pending free agent at the end of the season, is having a career year, one in which he is on pace for 58 home runs and 38 stolen bases. Those kind of numbers are going to command big bucks in the offseason, perhaps something in the range of five years and $65 million.

Sound a little outrageous? Not really. Consider some recent long-term deals signed by the game’s biggest sluggers: David Ortiz of the Red Sox (four years, $52 million), J.D. Drew of the Dodgers (five years, $55 million), Paul Konerko of the White Sox (five years, $60 million) and Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels (five years, $70 million). Soriano easily falls into that category.

So it’s going to take a boatload of cash to keep him in a curly W cap. So what, some say? Give him the money, he’s worth it.

Don’t forget the other part of the equation: Soriano has to want to re-sign. At the moment, it’s not clear if he does. He’s made some vague statements about liking the city and the team but not being comfortable in left field and not wanting to make a decision until the offseason.

There’s the key phrase: Not wanting to make a decision until the offseason. Soriano has little motivation to sign an extension now, not when he knows he can have his choice of teams come December. And it’s not like he owes the Nationals the courtesy of talking contract now, not the way he feels he was treated by general manager Jim Bowden and the organization during spring training. A handful of people close to Soriano say he’ll flat-out refuse to come back, if Bowden still is GM.

The Nationals can’t wait until the winter to negotiate with Soriano. They can’t take the chance he’ll wind up signing elsewhere and leave them with nothing in return (aside from a compensatory draft pick). Remember: Bowden traded Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge and prospect Armando Galarraga to acquire Soriano in the first place. In the end, he has to be able to say he got something of value in exchange for all that.

Who cares about getting something in return when Washington has a chance to make a real run at the pennant thanks to this surprising upturn? Take the fan’s cap off for a moment and think about this rationally.

The Nationals aren’t going to the playoffs. There’s just too much ground to make up. To win the NL East, they need to win 95 games. And to win 95 games, they would have to go 66-33 the rest of the way. That’s right: They would have to win two of three against every remaining opponent on the schedule.

It’s not going to happen.

Too many major league clubs get fooled by their own hint of success. They think it’s important to try to win 81 games every year. Well, 81 wins doesn’t mean the playoffs. And the difference between 81 and 95 is larger than most think.

Could the Nationals keep playing well, keep Soriano and wind up winning 81 to 85 games this season? Sure. But which is better: An 81-win team that loses Soriano to free agency, or a 70-win team with a couple top prospects who give them a chance to win 95 games in 2008?

The choice is obvious. As painful as it might be, the Nationals should trade Alfonso Soriano.

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

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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