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Is Alfonso's Love in Vain?

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A few weeks ago, I composed a post devoted to a subject that seems simple on the first impression or from a more detached vantage point, but that is difficult to accept from close-in, as a fan: the decision as to whether Alfonso Soriano remains in DC depends on Soriano himself. In other words, it is Soriano's self-interest---not whether he would be a worthwhile cornerstone of the team, or how much that he would cost and for how long---that must dictate considerations of Soriano's future. Or so I said.

And the thought occurs to me that maybe I got it backwards. Or maybe I didn't. But it looks like I might have.

In a development that is perhaps best---and most prudently vague---described as fascinating, Soriano apparently now wants to stay a Washington National. As he told the Post:

"I feel very good here, better than I expected," Soriano said in an interview yesterday. "I feel much better. I don't want to leave. I want to stay here and build something from this group that we have here. I think it's a very nice group. I feel more comfortable. I don't want to go to another place." . . .

"If they don't do nothing now, in three months, they would be the first team that I want to come to because I feel comfortable here," Soriano said. "We have a young team. You have a new owner. In two years, we have a new stadium here. There's a lot of good things happening here. I hope they think about this."

When the Post's story went to press, neither Jim Bowden nor Stan Kasten had issued comments on Soriano's announcement. However, Kasten did avail himself to reporters today, and Nats.com (reliably first on the scene, with its comparatively asynchronous format and hard-working beat writer) quoted Kasten thusly:

"It's the best news we could have," said Kasten. "It's fantastic because it is the first of what I'm sure will be many, many signals. The players are understanding what we are doing here.

"We are trying to build a team and a franchise that is a marquee franchise and we hope will become a magnet for all the best players, scouts, coaches and front-office personnel," he added. "It's very encouraging to have a player with such prominence, who is not only happy here, but would love to stay here."

Yet, the Nats.com article also notes some things that might bely Kasten's effusive response:

  • Soriano is still on the trading block;
  • the Angels, in particular, have shown interest;
  • the Nats offered Soriano a (presumably make-good) deal in the offseason (which Soriano rejected); and
  • they have not extended a long-term offer since then.
So, it would appear quite possible, or even likely, that management still intends to trade Soriano and reap some sort of bounty for the future. And, to a great extent, that course of action makes sense: There's a real disconnect between vowing to make the team over and committing huge dollars to a player who might be thirty-three or thirty-five by the time the team is a true contender.

Funny, isn't it? If you can trust Soriano's most recent statements---I repeat: if you can---then my perception was entirely backwards: it's up to the Nats, not to Soriano.

But I do stress the qualifier above---if you believe what Soriano now says. I mean this not as a criticism, but it's my observation that his quotations in the media are not entirely consistent from day-to-day or week-to-week. Recall a few weeks ago; he said in the press one day that he was resolute about returning to second base next year, and then the very next day he was quoted saying he was fine with left field, just getting more comfortable there.

About a month ago, or about whenever it was the Dodgers played at RFK Stadium, I was listening to Charley Steiner's "Baseball Beat" on XM Homeplate. Steiner, who I must acknowledge cannot be considered disinterested on the topic of where Soriano will end up, regarded Soriano's stay in DC as quite temporary indeed. He observed---and he stressed this was only his impression---that Soriano was still extremely bitter over the way the second-to-left conversion took place, didn't want to stay with the Nats, and sure as hell didn't want to remain with them in the event Jim Bowden was still around.

And now, Bowden is assured of staying around for the foreseeable future, and Soriano says he wants to stay---says in essence the Nats have an informal right of first refusal. Perhaps I shouldn't be skeptical, but I am. Perhaps I should disregard what Steiner had to say, but I don't completely.

Something about Soriano strikes me as a bit unreliable when it comes to his positions on certain matters, and I suspect Kasten is wary of detrimentally relying on merely Soriano's word. Which isn't to say that Soriano absolutely must be traded---it certainly seems like the new Bowden Nats (as distinguished from the old Bowden Nats, the ones who sacrificed their second- and third-round draft choices last season on Cristian Guzman and Vinny Castilla) have no problem with stockpiling draft picks. But, if he's not going to stay (and I'm not considering the issue of whether it would make sense for the Nats if he did), then it's probably beneficial to trade him for the best package prospects can buy.

At any rate, I am sort of reminded from a couple lines from Bob Dylan's song "Is Your Love in Vain?" (off 1978's Street Legal---not his best):

All right, I'll take a chance,
I will fall in love with you
If I'm a fool you can have the night,
you can have the morning too.

Because of the draft pick compensation safety net, even a total failure by the Kasten/Bodes think tank wouldn't be a horrible failure---but am I alone in thinking that Soriano has advanced things here? He's taken this (professional) relationship a step further, and if the Nats decide to rely on his word, and if he changes his mind, it could hurt. It would be something of a rejection.

In a way, it was safer back when he really expressed no interest in DC as anything other than a rest area on his way to a paycheck.

* * * *

I meant to mention this a couple days ago, but on Tuesday the Washington Times ran an interesting article on fans/researchers who make productive use of all-access-type packages like MLB Extra Innings and MLB.tv to track arcane things such as home run distances, fielding, pitches, and strategies. It's an interesting article, and I commend you to read it. Perhaps it could have mentioned a blog based in the Times' own metro area, Capitol Punishment, which evaluated Alfonso Soriano using video and hit charts well before Jim Bowden made it in style to do so. But, if you'll permit the meta-reference, perhaps that's an indication of the Nat(m)osphere's influence.

At any rate, it's a fine article. Yet, at the conclusion, the article takes a subtle shift in tone---from informational to evaluative:

As the field of baseball research becomes easier, it is also becoming more accepted by team scouts, who have relied more on observation and instinct than numbers. And researchers said their work allows them to understand the game and enhances their enjoyment. But some admit that there are times when a hot dog and a beer at the ballpark will suffice.

"I think there is a line," [U.S.S. Mariner's David] Cameron admitted. "There are times when I just want to sit there and watch the game."

This conclusion reads as a more benevolent---and, in light of Cameron's quotation, less confrontational---version of the standard baseball geek potshot (for the real thing, see this recent column). I don't know; maybe I read too much into that final section of the article. And, while I'm only semi-competent with statistics and I'm fairly certain I'd shred very existence itself if I tried to link to a clip from MLB.tv, I am fascinated by more analytical glimpses at the National Pastime. So maybe I'm just being defensive in a sense.

But, by sheer coincidence, I happened to run across an old professor today at a conference. After the encounter, I suddenly thought of this article again, which had escaped my memory for a couple of days. You see, this professor has to my knowledge never practiced law (as is commonly understood) a day in his life. Yet, he's regarded as an expert and, in fact, as an authority in an area of the Commonwealth's law. In light of his having never practiced, is he considered a geek---in a similar sense to how an individual who closely studies the game yet is not employed in the baseball industry (as a player, coach, scout, executive, sportswriter, play-by-play guy, color commentator, or studio analyst) is commonly mocked as a geek? Well, maybe he's considered a geek, but it's one hell of a respected geek. He has, after all, quite earned his expert status.

This is not to exalt your garden variety sabermetrician, videometrician, or armchair scout as an expert. But it's odd to me that so many people who so avidly and analytically follow the game are derided for their passion---and accused, by more than a few of those doing the deriding, of not even enjoying the games themselves.

Thus, back to the article, I don't know David Cameron, but I'm willing to presume with a good degree of confidence that, yes, he loves sitting in the sun and watching a baseball game, if that's the motivation for the query. Why wouldn't he?

* * * *

Speaking of the games, the Nats won again, taking the series from the Florida Marlins and securing their fifth victory in their last six contests. As is becoming something of a custom, the Nats rallied to win late and, as is becoming his reputation, rookie Ryan Zimmerman delivered the decisive hit. This time, it wasn't a walk-off homer, and it took him a few tries this time around (he struck out in the sixth and popped out in the ninth, both in key spots). But Zimmerman made it count in the eleventh, delivering a single to center that scored Brian Schneider for the winner.

Zimmerman may have been the headliner, but the key grips, so to speak, were the members of the bullpen---five of them this afternoon---who tossed a combined 9.1 scoreless innings, cleaning up Livan Hernandez's second inning mess (seven runs, on the heels of Florida's eight-run inning last night) and then some.

The excellent relief work was enabled and made meaningful by the surprising brilliance of Micah Bowie, a thirty-one year-old who was called up to replace the deposed Jason Bergmann and who made his first big league appearance since 2003. Bowie, the possessor of an 8.45 ERA in 71.1 career major league innings prior to this afternoon, shut down the Marlins for 2.1 innings. While Bowie walked two and had a dangerous strikes-to-balls ratio (23-to-18), he also struck out two Marlins and kept it a 7-5 game while he bought time for Rauch, Majewski, Bray, and Cordero to work with a manageable game. In my book, Bowie deserves the game ball.

* * * *

This is probably the wrong time to make the reference, but Micah Bowie had one of the worst seasons imaginable in 1999, a season in which he split cups of coffee with the Braves and Cubs. In fact, prose doesn't do it justice, so I'll just post the numbers:

IP  H  HR BB  SO  W  L  ERA
51 81 9 34 41 2 7 10.24

During that season, Bowie surrendered 20.6 baserunners per nine innings, which somehow sounds worse than an opposition's .363 batting average and .556 slugging average. Okay, not much worse.

It is little surprise that Bowie went under the knife and did not appear again in the bigs until 2002, for the A's (for whom he pitched pretty well in limited exposure). So, sure---Bowie's a mere stopgap. And it's best for all involved not to dwell on where he's been.

Let's just enjoy this one while it lasts---and, maybe, hope that his 52 strikeouts in 39.1 innings at New Orleans is indicative of something that wasn't there back when, during that time of his career about which we won't dwell.