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Left Field? Soria-No Problem
2006-03-22 11:55
by Mike Carminati

Alfonso Soriano, a career middle infielder, will accept an assignment to left field for his new club, the Washington Nationals. Manager Frank Robinson reacted, "It's a relief for everybody, it really is." You said a mouthful, Frank.

Baseball gets it second chance in less than a week to emit a collective sigh of relief. The first instance was when Japan defeated Cuba in the Wannabe Baseball Classic. It was bad enough when the US got ousted, but imagine how Bud and his boys would have reacted if Fidel Castro could crow that he had the best players in the world. Having the Japanese win jut showcased players that the majors will be signing in the next few years.

Soriano agreeing to play left in the Nationals version of chicken, allows baseball to avoid a PC version of Danny Gardella or Curt Flood. Back in the day, players argued that they could not be held to a team in perpetuity as some sort of chattel. Fights flared up with John Montgomery Ward and the Players League rebellion in 1890, Danny Gardella challenging being blacklisted after playing in the then-rival Mexican League in the late Forties, and Curt Flood famously refusing to report to the Phils—I can't blame him—after a trade in 1969.

Those players were fighting for the right to play for the team they wanted at a fair market value. That's a right that the players later won to some degree. That is, players must complete six seasons of major-league service to earn the right.

Soriano, though he may not have known it, was fighting for a player's right to play a role that he desired, the one that he felt was best for his career in the long run. Though many can empathize with players being able to decide the team and city for which he would play, the public is not going to support a player refusing to play a new position just because he doesn't want to do so. He is seen as a lazy lollygagger who is putting himself before the team.

Some would say Soriano should have seen this coming. Going back to his Yankee days, two franchises ago, rumors swirled that Soriano would eventually be moved to the outfield. Some would point to the fact that when he was traded to Texas, Michael Young shifted to shortstop to accommodate his playing second (not to mention Alex Rodriguez, the man for whom he was traded and the then-reigning AL MVP, agreed to shift to third base).

Never mind that Soriano had been steadfast in his refusal to shift to the outfield. At the time he was traded to the Nationals for two outfielders in December given that the Nats already had Jose Vidro at second base, he stated he was not moving to the outfield. That was four months ago and Washington apparently made no effort to trade him due to the deadlock.

With the Soriano away at the WBC, the issue was tabled, but when he returned, apparently, the team just assumed he was ready and able to play left field though he had never played there before in his major-league career and the issue was never resolved after the trade.

When he refused, Jim Bowden, the Expo GM, knee-jerked that the team was ready to put Soriano on the disqualified list, thereby holding onto his $10M price tag for 2005 and barring him from becoming a free agent after the season: "[H]e would not be a free agent. He would still be our property."

It was theorized that the union could argue that Soriano shifting to left would reduce his value just as he is preparing to become a free agent. It was also in question as to whether Soriano would lose service time while sitting on the disqualified list since it was not explicitly stated one way or the other in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

One could also question whether refusing to play a particular position was an offense that could put a player on the disqualified list. At the very least it would be a precedent. Disqualification is just for players who violate their contract. Of course, there is nothing Soriano's contract that states which position he will or will not play so it's a stretch under the best interests of the team corollary of the disqualified list definition:

Disqualified List:
A player who violates a player contract or reservation may be placed on this list. There is no minimum number of days the player must remain on the Disqualified List before the player can be reinstated to the Active List. A player on the Disqualified List does not count against a Club's Active List limits or its Reserve List limits.
I found three instances in recent history in which the disqualified list was used other than as a disciplinary action for suspended players. Bert Blyleven tried to force a trade on April 30, 1980 but caved after two weeks on the disqualified list (though he was granted his wish and was traded after the season).

Dickie Thon left the Astros on July 3, 1987 still dealing with being beaned three years earlier. An unsympathetic Dick Wagner, the Houston GM, placed him on the disqualified list for the rest of the season. Interestingly, Thon became a free agent in the offseason and signed with the Padres. However, he had already amassed more than six years of major-league experience and he was apparently release by the Astros (though it appears that he was paid his full salary for the season).

In 1993, Deion Sanders went AWOL for three weeks starting at the end of April, after attending his father's funeral. He was on the disqualified list for the entire time but was welcomed back when he finally did report.

There's not a lot of history that applies to the Soriano case in there. Thon's the closest and it's still a stretch.

So there were a lot of question marks and no real answers. Both sides girded for battle. The Nats were idle on Tuesday, but Bowden set a deadline with today's game against the Cards. If Soriano refused to play left again, the GM would set the whole machinery in motion.

The game would start and the PA announcer would boom playing left field for the Nationals….Bueller?...Bueller?..Er, I mean, Soriano?...Soriano?

Unfortunately, Soriano perhaps seeing how hard the row would be to hoe, decided that left field aint so bad after all. So we'll never find out who would have won. It would have been interesting.

I think that the whole idea of team sports start to erode if players decide how and when they will be used. Remember how many kids wanted to play right field in stickball when you were growing up? It may make teams think twice if they blatantly disregard a player's desires like Washington did here. If you acquire a first baseman to play short in the future, you might now reconsider. Then again, if the Nats knew what they were doing they would have never picked up two starting second baseman and painted themselves in the corner to such a degree.

Then again, this issue may not be dead. Soriano only needs one-half season under his belt to be eligible for free agency after the season. Let's say he has an amazing first half, and Jose Vidro struggles. That might allow him to put more pressure on the team to trade Vidro and shift him to second. Or for another example, he could stink up left field, boot balls and have a sub-par offensive start, which might convince the Nats to trade him, but that won't help to get him Amigo Money once he becomes a free agent. Then again, with Christian Guzman and Royce Clayton at short, Washington may decide that moving Soriano back to the infield—he was a shortstop in the minors—is the best option.

I'm still disappointed the worst-case scenario didn't play out. I expected Bud Selig to engineer a trade to the Red Sox for a bucket of ice (wait, the Reds just took that in the Pena trade). Dang!

2006-03-22 13:20:33
1.   Shaun P
Nice, Mike, very nice. A bucket of ice . . . Howard Bryant should have expanded the Cartel to include Bud, the Marlins, the Nats . . .
2006-03-22 23:10:21
2.   deadteddy8
In other words, should we look for Soriano to Vince Carter the Nats? Has that ever happened before in MLB to such an obvious degree that Carter did it to the Raptors?
2006-03-22 23:16:22
3.   das411
2 - Curt Schilling's entire career, what?
2006-03-23 11:28:03
4.   Brent is a Dodger Fan
I can't imagine that in the "walk-year" anyone would do anything further to reduce his free-agency value.

Hopefully for Soriano, what really happened was that his agent had a frank conversation with him about his options, helping him conclude that the legal battle wasn't worth fighting, he had made his point loudly enough, and he'll be able to return to 2B as a free agent. 'So go out there and tear it up, Soriano! You'll make the big bucks and get the chance to play second again in the free market.'

The alternative was to fight, and nothing could reduce your free market value more than to be so loud about saying "I won't play anywhere but _____". In 2004, the Dodgers traded for Steve Finley, requiring Milton Bradley to play Right (not his preference), and sometime this season, they may need to move Jeff Kent to First (not his preference). Neither of these guys threaten(ed) to not play if asked to change positions. This is just to say that teams do this all the time, and wouldn't want to give mega millions to a player who won't meet the team's need for flexibility.

2006-03-25 21:37:08
5.   David
When Sori caved, he said he did so because he loved the game of baseball. Fair enough, but it's interesting that he didn't give as a primary reason that he wanted to help his team win.

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