Is Alfonso Soriano?s continued and apparently ecstatic presence on the Washington Nationals the evidence of wise restraint or the residue of jumbled design? Is it a godsend? If not a godsend, then a curse? If not a curse, then a failed opportunity? Or, if not a failed opportunity, then a cause for admiration?
You see where I?m headed. I?m conflicted in a circular manner, headed toward an endpoint of indeterminate location.
I?m left with two choices:
- Blaming Bodes. Blame him for being such a gargantuan tool; blame him for being such a pub hound; blame him for proclaiming that the clamoring for his star player was so intense (these deals are HOT!) that his telephone---figuratively, one would hope---was on fire; blame him, despite all this bluster, for finding no trade that was acceptable; blame him for playing everyone against each other until, ultimately, the only one that was played was his sweet little self.
- Crediting Bodes. Credit him for restraint; credit him for not settling for second best; credit him for not sagging like a damp cardboard box when there was intense pressure to deal Soriano---and everybody knew this pressure existed; credit him for attesting that there just was no deal that fit; credit him for his plain language that no one was going to give up the farm for a two-month rental; credit him for holding on to an exciting player in the face of all of this; credit him for acquiring the guy in the first place---despite the risk, despite the cost, despite the criticism---because, simply, he trusted the guy could really, really play baseball.
There?s a reason why I don?t want to hedge in this instance. Part of the deadline criticism of Bowden focused on aspects of his blustery reputation. By all indications, Bodes loves to talk about himself, to talk himself up, to puff up his standing, and to position himself as intelligent and important. I don?t know if he?s worthy of being talked up, of being puffed up, or of being considered intelligent or important. More often, the inquiry ends somewhere before it?s time to make those determinations. The inquiry usually ends at the point Bowden?s reputation comes into play. It?s hard---perhaps impossible---to take the position that Bowden blew it yesterday (at least with respect to Soriano) without invoking Bowden?s bluster, his double-shot of transactional AD/HD, and his Captain Leatherpants persona.
Almost everything Jim Bowden does is, knowingly or unknowingly, voluntarily or involuntarily, viewed in light of these attributes. It?s unavoidable. I?m no fan of the guy---on this record, I see some good moves, some bad moves, and generally an absence of vision---but I wonder if this feeling is explained more by a para-social dislike for him than an honest appraisal. I don?t know why I?d confess this point just now, but here you go. Why don?t I like him? Is this feeling genuine? (Bowden is on record as saying and doing some stupid stuff in his day.) Is it jealousy? (If this blundering fool can spend fifteen years heading two different organizations, why can?t any old blundering fool?) Is it dogmatic? (Here I am, a nominal stathead, and he trades a patient hitter for a low-OBP slugger; I?ve got to root for this deal to fail!) I don?t know. I have no standing to be offended by what Bodes allegedly does or says, I have no ?fantasy camp? desire to be an actual MLB GM, and I?ve never done anything but root for Alfonso Soriano to be a smashing success between the white lines. But I do wonder.
The events of earlier today---as breathlessly reported by scoops ranging from national reporters to former-GMs-turned-analysts to ?new media? types like Will Carroll---seem to indicate that Bowden overplayed his hand, waited too long to act, and ran out of time. This is a perfect Why you gotta play me like that, dawg? scenario. Too perfect, in fact. It would be far too easy to say, ?Stupid Bowden. He blustered and blustered and blustered. And then he did nothing, because everybody hates him for the blustering fool that he is. And now he?s stuck.?
I don?t know the truth, but the possibility remains that he did just as he said he would, just as Stan Kasten said the organization would: They established a principle (not to settle for anything less than the best for Soriano), and in the face of pressure to act, they took a principled stand. It?s possible Bodes wouldn?t have acted like this had Kasten not been around; it?s possible he would have busted at noon with a presser proclaiming he had acquired Curtis Goodwin?s second cousin or something. Or whatever. I don?t know.
But Bowden?s the head of baseball operations here, and if you believe his baseball operation, then under his leadership the boys stuck to their guns. I don?t discount the likelihood that there was some bluster, some misdirection, and even some outright lying. Yet, I?d imagine just about any GM in such a position would do the same. He was trying to maximize value, and in so doing you must often play two potential bidders against one another, with the winner being the one who most minimizes his own value.
If it didn?t work---and it apparently didn?t---there is no loss. The club had options.
In part, the club had options because Bowden had the fortune or foresight of trading for a player---the ultimate toolsy outfielder, quite fittingly---who possesses grand character, or the semblance of same. Based on this one season, Soriano is a better person than a ballplayer, and that is no insult to his game at all. He was traded to a strange place---hell, a strange team---moved, switched, scrutinized, educated on-the-fly, and except for one solitary day, has apparently been the model teammate and a leader on a team with quite literally no direction most of the season. Soriano could have demanded a trade months ago. Setting aside the consideration of his own self-interest as an impending free agent, he could sulked and performed less than his best. He could have strongly advised the club to trade him yesterday, at any cost, because every team pursuing him was a contender. He did none of that. He sounded happy to stay. Now, of course he does have self-interest, and I have no doubt that he?ll follow that self-interest, wherever it leads, when it comes time; he?s still human, not a deity, so let?s have no misconceptions. And his reputation in DC might well be burned to a degree. That of his agent, Diego Bentz, certainly will; Stan Kasten is, you see, already setting up a ?triangulation? scenario.
However, let us not lose sight of the fact that, if Bowden and company stuck to their principles here, they were enabled to do so because they acquired baseball?s version of a gentleman.
* * * *
And so we?re here: Soriano remains, with no top prospects replacing him. My head tells me this is not ideal. My instinct tells me this is not so bad---just play it out and see where it takes us.
Ultimately, where it might take us is two bites at the apple---a first and a compensatory first (or at worst, if a lesser team signs him, a compensatory pick and a second rounder).
If so, then the cost is a net $6 million or so (roughly the difference between Soriano?s salary and Brad Wilkerson?s salary, adding in Terrmel Sledge, I suppose), money that probably wouldn?t have been spent, or would have been spent on additional bench or rotational stop-gaps that don?t advance the organization?s interests more than six months down the road. From this perspective, what Bodes essentially did was accelerate Wilkerson?s free agency by two years and reap the draft pick compensation rather immediately. Given the trend in Wilkerson?s performance---and darn it all if I didn?t trust my instinct last November that a similarity-by-age score heading straight toward a dead guy (Ivan Calderon) wasn?t a great sign---this might?ve been a shrewd move. (I don?t mean to dump on Wilkerson, who apparently is still slowed by injury.) Plus, we?ve been able to see (or hear---thanks, Chuck & Dave2.0!) a very talented player performing at the height of his abilities. This has value, of course, value that escapes the standings and the balance sheet.
Now, are the two picks more valuable than whatever was the best offer for Soriano earlier today? I?m not sure anyone can say at this point. You can criticize the ?Nats think tank? for not striking while the iron was as hot as it was going to be, or you can view it as a delaying action designed to bank on something better cropping up. Maybe the 2007 draft will be flush in talent. Maybe it?s wiser to trust your fortunes to your own scouting and organizational regime, especially when there?s a concurrent investment in these resources. Maybe everybody available yesterday had a fatal flaw.
* * * *
And maybe the plan doesn?t contemplate these draft picks. I suppose there exists a possibility that Soriano actually will re-sign with the Nats. I don?t know how likely this is, as reportedly Kasten will not accede to what Soriano would want, given his bargaining position: a no-trade clause.
Let?s assume that Kasten agrees to allow Bodes essentially to buy out a no-trade clause. Let?s assume that Soriano actually seeks to stay in DC. Let?s assume a deal is worked out. What then?
My instinct leads me to conclude that this scenario would change everything, and rapidly at that. If you build a long-term offensive model around an expensive, post-thirty player like Soriano, it seems you better get cracking at building a contender. Now, I don?t think Soriano will age very quickly; he might have a bad year here and there, but let?s not fall into the trap many of us, including me, did back in December: A down year does not necessitate a downward trend. Of course, the corollary is that an up year does not necessitate an upward trend, and in that sense, I remain skeptical whether Soriano is this uber-power/speed superstar with vastly increased plate discipline. But he?s a far better than I give him credit for, and in a good year (maybe not even this good of a year), he?s quite good enough to be the best overall player on a contending team.
In other words, what I?m saying is that I wouldn?t object to signing Soriano long-term---and even at something resembling Soriano?s stated price (whatever that is). You only live once, right?
Of course, this would be a rather unexpected development. It would be entirely inconsistent with Stan Kasten?s stated plan. But if it happens, you go for it. The other day, when I contemplated this scenario, I said go for it immediately. Perhaps I?m wrong there. If you sign Soriano for four or five years, you?ve got a little time. You have to trust that he?ll remain committed to the cause and not fall into disillusionment, a la Miguel Tejada. Of course, in order to avoid such a posture, the team must show that it is committed to success; fortunately, it is not saddled on-the-field (off it is another story) by Peter Angelos, a man who can drive away even the best of baseball fans. It will need to invest in pitching somehow---free agency, fast-track college hurlers in the draft, whatever. It will need Mike Rizzo and Dana Brown to pull some serious talent out of a hat, so that when a horse surprisingly becomes available---such as Roy Oswalt, reportedly---there?s enough depth and firepower in the system to facilitate such a deal. It will need really, really vigilant work by the coaches, trainers, and doctors to do absolutely everything they can that a John Patterson keeps a toe on the rubber and not a butt on the James Andrews? examination table. And so forth.
It?s a bit scary to contemplate. It is far, far easier to say, ?Oh, we?ve got a vision for the future,? whether or not that vision is truly genuine. Of course, genuinely building up a successful organization is hard, hard work---far harder than the easy road of buying into declining talent every offseason. And potentially far more successful; just ask the Orioles of 1998, or 1999, or 2000, or to a far more middling extent, 2001-03. Or the Orioles of today.
Perhaps it?s possible to juggle concurrent tracks: retain Soriano and develop talent efficiently enough to surround him with some real comers when it comes time to shift it into high gear, say, in two seasons. If so, then the Kearns/Lopez trade was a masterstroke. But I don?t see the pitching right now---not in the organization, not necessarily anywhere on the horizon, within or without. And, unless you strike it precisely right, pitching is something that can?t be rushed---and, unless you?re the late-90s Rangers, something that can?t be omitted.
* * * *
And, you see, I?m back to being conflicted. Yet, I?d rather be conflicted by the future than the (recent) past. What has happened has happened; nothing can be done about that now, except at the worst to enjoy another two months of watching Soriano play. It?s trite, but it?s true.