Nationals to move on without Soriano

Nationals ready to move on without Soriano

WASHINGTON -- Left fielder Alfonso Soriano often talked about how much he wanted to stay with the Nationals because of the friendships he made and how comfortable he was in Washington, but his future now will be in Chicago. On Sunday, Soriano agreed to an eight-year, $136 million contract with the Cubs. It's the fifth-largest contract in Major Leagues history.

The chance of Soriano staying with the Nationals was 50-50 at best. The two parties were supposed to meet right after the season ended, but the get-together never materialized, and the Nationals were not given a chance to make a substantial offer, according to baseball sources.

"His representatives said, 'We'll get back to [the Nationals],' and they never did. You can't blame them, especially with the contract Soriano received," said one source.

The contract Soriano agreed to with the Cubs was too rich for the Nationals anyway. Instead, Washington plans to spend the money on its farm system, which has been dry for over five years. The team will get two picks in the First-Year Player Draft from the Cubs as compensation.

"We wish Alfonso nothing but the best," said general manager Jim Bowden. "But signing Alfonso to that contract would not help the long-term future of the franchise."

New manager Manny Acta felt the likelihood of the Nationals signing Soriano was slim. There were many outside the organization who felt Acta would be able to convince Soriano to stay with the Nationals because both are from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.

"He is a terrific player. Our chances were very slim once he went into the open market. That being said, our biggest need is pitching," Acta said via e-mail.

In his only season with the Nationals, Soriano hit .277 with 46 home runs and 95 RBIs. He became the first member of the 40-40-40 (home runs, steals and doubles) club.

It was even more remarkable Soriano put up those kinds of numbers since his season started in controversy. After acquiring Soriano from the Rangers for outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and right-hander Armando Galarraga, the Nationals made it clear they wanted him to switch from second base to left field. The team thought he was a liability at second, and the position belonged to incumbent Jose Vidro.

Soriano balked at the idea. After he returned from the World Baseball Classic and missed a Spring Training game against the Dodgers on March 20, Soriano faced the possibility of being put on the disqualified list and losing his $10 million salary. But after an off-day, Soriano decided to play left field.

The move worked out well for Soriano and the Nationals, as he led the Major Leagues in outfield assists with 22 and was the National League's starting left fielder in the All-Star Game.

Soriano also put a zip on all the critics who claimed it was difficult to hit home runs at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. He hit 24 out of the park.

"Obviously, you want to keep a guy that brings that much to a team, but I understand the free-agent market," said Nationals catcher Brian Schneider. "He is a free agent and he is entitled to get as much money to play for whatever team he wants. I'm very happy for him. The Cubs are getting a great ballplayer. They are a lucky team. We had a blast with him this year. Obviously, I wish he could come back.

"If it were up to him, he wished he could have stayed. I don't know what happened as far as money offered. He liked this group. He was close with a couple of us on the team. He was close with Nick Johnson for a long time, and he enjoyed the city of DC. He went out to dinner and he said the fans treated him so good and that he would love to stay. But there are a lot of factors that go into staying."

It was revealed during the season that Soriano wanted to make more money than Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal, who signed for three years and $39 million last December.

There was even talk of Soriano accepting a back-loaded contract, but the chances of Soriano accepting that was believed by some to be a long shot with Soriano backed by agent Diego Bentz. The last time the organization offered a back-loaded contract with a big-name player was after the 2003 season, when outfielder Vladimir Guerrero rejected a five-year, $75-million deal and signed with the Angels. Bentz was Guerrero's agent at the time.

The loss of Soriano means three things: The Nationals will get the Cubs' second-round and sandwich picks in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. Washington will not get Chicago's first-round pick, because the Cubs finished in the bottom 15 of the Major League standings.

Bowden and team president Stan Kasten said all along they were willing to get draft picks for Soriano to improve the farm system.

Soriano's departure also means Kory Casto and Ryan Church will compete for the left-field job.

Casto is considered by many in the Nationals' front office to be the frontrunner. He began last season as the starting third baseman for Double-A Harrisburg. Before the July trade deadline, however, assistant general manager Bob Boone told Casto to switch to left field, as the Nationals were planning to call up Casto to the big leagues had they traded Soriano before the deadline.

Casto was the organization's Minor League Player of the Year the last two seasons. In 2005, he hit .290 with 22 home runs and 90 RBIs for Class A Potomac. Last season, Casto had a .272 average with 20 home runs and 80 RBIs for Harrisburg. He also spent time in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .302 with nine RBIs.

When reached by phone, Casto already had heard the news that Soriano had signed with the Cubs. Casto said he is looking forward to getting a chance to play in the big leagues.

"It's motivation for me during the offseason," Casto said. "I'm coming prepared to battle for a spot. I know Ryan real well. He's a friend. I'm looking forward to trying to win a job."

Church had an up-and-down season, spending half the time in the Minor Leagues. But he finished strong, hitting .276 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs.

With Soriano gone, Felipe Lopez is slated to be the Nationals' new leadoff hitter. Acta said Tuesday he liked that Lopez improved his onbase percentage and walked 81 times in 2006.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.