Taking one for the team

The press is divided: Alfonso Soriano is Terrell Owens. Alfonso Soriano isn’t Terrell Owens. No matter. There is one thing that matters.

Alfonso Soriano is an employee of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club and is under contract until the end of next year. Alfonso Soriano wants to play second base. His employer wants him to play left field.

If you aren’t a professional athlete, the case is clear: You do what your employer tells you. Period. Why is it different if you make $10 million a year?The argument against the move goes like this: Once a player reaches a certain level of accomplishment, there’s an unwritten rule that you don’t ask him to change positions. The argument is that Soriano has reached that level of accomplishment.

It’s true that Soriano is a very accomplished hitter. In five full seasons, he’s hit 30 homers and stolen 30 bases three times. Only Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonds have done it more times. It’s rare for someone to do it once. In his second full season in the majors, he fell one home run short of 40/40, which is something only men have done: Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez. Looking at that list, it’s hard to do without steroids. For that matter, it’s hard to do with steroids.

But those are Soriano’s offensive accomplishments. On the field, he’s anything but an accomplished gloveman. His career fielding percentage at second base is .971. Soriano is no Ryne Sandberg. Since the Nationals have a capable gloveman at second base in Jose Vidro, they want to hide Soriano’s glove in left field to get his bat into the lineup.

Soriano’s objection is that next year is his free agent year, and there’s a better market for second basemen with 30-homer power than there is for left fielders with 30-homer power.

So let’s get this straight: He wants the Nationals to play him at second base this year so another team will potentially pay him more money next year.

I’m not surprised the Nationals aren’t sympathetic.

Besides, there’s a predecent for moving back to second base if another team wants him there. Craig Biggio moved from catcher to second base when the Astros needed a second baseman. A decade later, he moved to center field so the Astros could sign Jeff Kent, a power hitter who can’t play any other position well. A few months later, Biggio moved from center field to left so his team could trade for Carlos Beltran, arguably the best center fielder in the game. The next season, Biggio moved back to second base.

Nomar Garciaparra signed with the Dodgers as a first baseman despite never having played the position in his life. But the Dodgers already had two shortstops so Garciaparra signed as a first baseman. He wanted to be in LA, and the Dodgers wanted his bat. Problem solved. In theory at least.

So if any team is interested in Soriano’s oven mitt-like glovework at second base–and there are a few teams who have the money to pay him, and no better options at the position–nothing stops them from asking Soriano to move back there. And there’s little question that there’ll be teams interested in Soriano as a designated hitter too.

There would have been, anyway. Certainly there’s still a market for Soriano, since anybody can use someone who can hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases. But you want someone who’s interested in winning ballgames, not just in collecting a paycheck.

Some years ago, the New York Yankees were looking for a left fielder with a lot of power. They set their sights on Jim Edmonds, who was the center fielder for the Anaheim Angels at the time. There was some question whether Edmonds would be willing to play left field, since most people considered him a better center fielder than the Yankees’ Bernie Williams.

Edmonds said he’d rather play center. But he said what was most important to him was winning a World Series. "I’ll play third base for them if that’s what it takes to win a Series," he said.

Well, the Yankees and Angels couldn’t work out a deal, and Edmonds ended up playing center field in St. Louis instead. But that’s the attitude you want to see.

Some people argue that the Nationals should have discussed all this with Soriano before they traded for him. The Texas Rangers wouldn’t allow the Nationals to talk to him. For good reason–the Rangers wanted to move him to the outfield, and he wouldn’t move. The Yankees had wanted to move him to the outfield too, and his refusal to move was part of the reason the Yankees traded him to Texas. The only worse-kept secret in baseball was Barry Bonds and his steroids.

So the Nationals made a bad trade. Shame on them.

But shame on Soriano even more.

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