All Right inLeft
After a bumpy start, Alfonso Soriano is settling in with his new position andhis new team. But how long will he be there?
Alfonso Sorianohas accepted his fate, albeit grudgingly. "What else can I do?" asksWashington's new leftfielder. "I'm a second baseman. But the Nationals wantme there, so I'll play in the outfield this season. I just have to make thebest of this."
A month after themuch-publicized dispute between Soriano and the Nats--traded by Texas inDecember, the four-time All-Star initially balked at changing positions(Washington has Jose Vidro entrenched at second)--Soriano was all smiles,fielding well and hitting .329 with six home runs and 12 RBIs throughSunday.
The 30-year-oldDominican was considered a poor defensive second baseman whose gaudy home runtotals (32 per season over the last two years) were helped by the Rangers'hitter-friendly Ameriquest Field. However, in his first 18 games he made onlyone error and led NL outfielders in assists (three), and last Thursday inPhiladelphia he made three leaping catches at the wall to preserve a 10--4 win.What's more, he hit four home runs in his first five games in spacious RFKStadium (home to the second-fewest dingers in the majors last season),including three last Friday against Atlanta, powering the Nationals to theirfifth win in six games.
"We were lastin runs last year, last in slugging," says Washington general manager JimBowden, who was criticized for not pressing Texas for the right to talk toSoriano about moving to the outfield before pulling the trigger on the dealthat sent outfielder Brad Wilkerson (.182 average, two homers as a Ranger) andtwo minor leaguers to Arlington. "He's the big-time run producer thislineup desperately needed. We knew we were adding a 30-, 35-home-run hitter ifwe could convince him to go to the outfield."
A full-time secondbaseman since his rookie season with the Yankees in 2001, Soriano says hefinally began to accept the position switch after a mid-March sit-down withmanager Frank Robinson, who described how he had reluctantly moved from theoutfield to first base in 1959 at the request of the Reds. "That opened myeyes a little bit," says Soriano. (Robinson returned to the outfield fulltime in 1961.)
Soriano's speedand athleticism give him good range in left, where he's at least a better fitthan he is in the leadoff spot. (The Nationals have been using him at the topof the order since April 13, despite his .321 career on-base percentage and4.3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.) "For me, the toughest part is [reacting]to line drives at me," he says. "But I'll get better. I'm feeling moreand more comfortable out there and on this team."
He should knowbetter than to get too comfortable, however. If the Nationals, who were 7--11at week's end, are out of playoff contention as the July 31 trade deadlinenears, they'll most likely try to deal Soriano, who is making $10 million thisyear and will become a free agent after the season. "My preference is tokeep him," Bowden says, "but if circumstances change and the right dealcomes along, [a trade] is certainly possible."
Says a rivalNational League general manager, "Last month, when [Bowden] tried to dealSoriano with all the mess going on, Soriano's stock couldn't have been lower.But now he's shown he can be an adequate outfielder who can also play secondbase. His success at RFK is reminding people how great a hitter he is. If hekeeps it up, there'll be plenty of interest in him."
Soriano's smoothstart was a bright spot for a franchise starved for positive headlines. Ravagedby injuries during spring training (six players started the season on thedisabled list), Washington staggered to a 2--9 start. Attendance was down 4,395per game from last year's debut season in Washington, new ownership and a cabledeal remained unresolved, and Bowden was arrested and charged with DUI lastweek in Miami. "There hasn't been a boring day here yet," says firstbaseman Matt LeCroy. "But any problems can be cured pretty quickly withsome winning."
Too Much, Too Soon?
Several toppitchers are off to rocky starts--and some managers blame the World BaseballClassic. "You can go down the list," says A's skipper Ken Macha, whosecloser, Huston Street (7.94 ERA through Sunday), has struggled with hisvelocity since appearing in three games for the U.S. That list includes thefollowing:
He allowed one run in 14 innings for the Dominican Republic, but he was winlesswith a 7.07 ERA before landing on the DL with inflammation in his rightshoulder.
Mexico's ace gave up 17 earned runs in his first 182/3 innings for Oakland.
He was 1--2 with a 4.32 ERA through four starts after logging eight innings forTeam USA.
The Venezuelan threw 81/3 innings for his country, then went winless in fourstarts for Minnesota.
The workhorse made two appearances for Venezuela and lost some velocity off his95-mph fastball.
Some managers andcoaches think the WBC disrupted pitchers' preparations for the season."Everyone was so jazzed up, it was like a playoff atmosphere," saysTwins pitching coach Rick Anderson. "Then, with 10 days to go in springtraining, those guys came back, and it was like, 'Take a breather.' That's thetime you've got to get to your peak instead of coming down from yourpeak."
A few pitchersapparently came out of the tournament unfazed, however, such as Team USA'sDontrelle Willis (1--0, 2.92 ERA for the Marlins) and Canada's Erik Bedard(4--0, 2.77 ERA for Baltimore). "Teams might be more against it thanever," says Nationals reliever Mike Stanton, "but I don't think anyplayers are going to shy away from the [next WBC] because a few guys struggledin April."
On the Move
Like AlfonsoSoriano, these players changed positions this year, with varying results.
Nomar Garciaparra,Dodgers, SS to 1B
The 32-year-old, out with a strained rib muscle, went 2 for 4 in hisregular-season debut on Saturday.
Eric Hinske, BlueJays, 1B to RF
After making way for off-season trade pickup Lyle Overbay, Hinske, 28, wound upin a platoon with Alex Rios, who could steal more at bats if he stays hot(.375, 16 RBIs).
Javy Lopez,Orioles, C to 1B
Baltimore signed catcher Ramon Hernandez this winter, but Lopez, 35, was adisaster at first base in spring training (four errors in nine games); he'ssettled in at DH.
Chad Tracy,Diamondbacks, 1B-RF to 3B
Arizona's trade of Troy Glaus allowed Tracy, 25 (above), to return to hisnatural position. He's looked at home in the field and at the plate (.362, 10RBIs).
Kevin Youkilis,Red Sox, 3B to 1B
A first baseman in high school, Youkilis, 27, has made a seamless transition(one error at week's end) thanks to tips from backup J.T. Snow, a six-time GoldGlover.
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JOHN IACONO (SORIANO)
STATUSQUO - Moving to leftfield hasn't affected Soriano's offense: He was hitting.329 at week's end.
RICK SCUTERI/US PRESSWIRE (TRACY)