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March 23, 2006

Prospectus Today

Roster News

by Joe Sheehan

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The Alfonso Soriano mini-controversy ended almost as quickly as it began Wednesday, with Soriano trotting out to left field for the Nationals in their game against the Cardinals.

This was the only possible ending to the story; Soriano, though frustrated, had no recourse but to abide by his manager's decision. When a player signs his contract, he's agreeing to play baseball, not a particular position. He's a resource for his team, and if that team decides that the best use of resources is to have the player change positions, then the player has little choice but to make the move. He can protest, he can request or even demand a trade, but he cannot refuse to play. The threat of the disqualified list was real, and the Nationals would have been completely justified in following through on it.

Now that Soriano has accepted the change, however, are the Nationals really any better off? This situation has just highlighted the mistake that was the Soriano-for-Brad Wilkerson deal. That trade created this mess, in part because Bowden didn't make sure, in advance of doing the deal, that Soriano would be willing to change positions. He dealt a credible center fielder for a second baseman who would have to be taught the outfield--Soriano has never played the outfield in a major-league game--and who wouldn't be nearly as valuable by doing so.

Soriano's bat, special by middle-infield standards, is nothing like that as a left fielder. His .285 EqA last year would have ranked 14th among left fielders (200 outs, minimum). Soriano is exiting both his peak and a home park that has been very kind to him over the past two seasons. Since being dealt to the Rangers in February 2004, Soriano has hit .234/.281/.409 outside of Ameriquest Field. That's the player the Nats are running out to left field: a low-OBP slugger with speed who's doing on-the-job training at a new position.

There's an argument to be made that Soriano will actually gain value as a left fielder, because he won't be killing his team with his terrible play at second base. I can accept this in theory, but in practice it's not going to make much of a difference. If he gains 20 runs defensively by becoming an average left fielder, that's just treading water because of the higher offensive standards of his new position. For Soriano to be a championship-caliber left fielder, he'd have to either become a plus-value defensive player or return to the .300 EqA level at which he peaked while a Yankee.

What's more likely to happen is that Soriano remains the player he was in Texas, but instead of playing half his games in a good hitters' park, he'll play half in a graveyard. His surface numbers will likely remain acceptable--he'll hit 25 homers and steal that many bases, probably score or drive in 100 runs--but he's not going to be helping the Nationals do more than fight off the Marlins for fourth place in the NL East. The best the Nationals can hope for is that he adapts to left field well enough to add to his trade value, because Soriano's true worth to them is what they can get for him on the market this summer.

--

A trade that actually did happen came a bit out of the blue this week, as the Red Sox dealt Bronson Arroyo to the Reds for Wily Mo Pena. This was something of a surprise, as the Sox had signed Arroyo to a three-year deal over the winter, and the Reds seemed more likely to deal Austin Kearns if they were going to move an outfielder.

I'm bullish on this deal from the Sox' standpoint. Statistically, Pena looks for all the world like Sammy Sosa did at 24, a high-risk, high-reward hitter with 40-homer potential and good speed. Sosa was a better defensive player and made better use of his speed when he was Pena's age, but Pena doesn't have to become Sosa for the Sox to win this deal. He can serve as Trot Nixon's platoon partner and bad-back carrier in 2006, picking up 350 at-bats in an environment that encourages hitters to be disciplined, then become a regular in 2007, hopefully making the same strides that Sosa and new teammate Manny Ramirez did in their mid-20s. If Pena can chop his 5-to-1 K/BB ratio down to even 3-to-1, the better pitches he'll see in hitters' counts will make a big difference in his numbers. Forget Sosa and Ramirez, and consider some of the other comps on Pena's PECOTA card, such as Jesse Barfield and Frank Howard. If Pena can match their mid-20s work, the Sox win this trade going away.

At the least, the Red Sox are unlikely to look bad for doing this. Pena's downside is a player like Juan Encarnacion, who does enough things to be a contributor in a limited role or keep a job as a below-average starter. As much as I've talked up Arroyo in the past, he's established himself as a mid-rotation innings guy and he's about to move to a context that will absolutely kill him. Great American Ball Park is a terrible spot for pitchers, and when you consider that the Reds, even adjusting for ballpark, put a lousy defensive team on the field, Arroyo is going to see his numbers take a hit. Even if he rebounds from a poor second half of 2005 in which his strikeout rate plummeted, it's hard to see Arroyo as more than an affordable stopgap for the Reds. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine what word in the previous sentence means the most to Arroyo's new team.

Might we see more deals like this as March nears an end? The Reds and Red Sox had excesses at certain spots, making them a good match for a trade. Now that players have returned from the World Baseball Classic to their MLB camps, other teams may find that they, too, have more depth than they need, particularly in situations where players who got chances to impress thanks to additional playing time now find themselves squeezed by returning stars.

Looking around the league, the Devil Rays have the same logjam of hitters, especially outfielders, that they had when the winter began, and the same dearth of pitching as well. The White Sox, Twins and A's all have a rare excess of starting pitching, while the Cubs and Angels seem to have too many relievers. With less than two weeks to Opening Day, there are still open lineup spots and position battles in both leagues, leaving the possibility of deals, especially for players who are out of options. That latter group includes Brandon Phillips, Jon Rauch, Todd Wellemeyer and Guillermo Quiroz.

I'm back on the road tomorrow, headed for New York for the AL Tout Wars auction. If you have AL sleepers, send them along. As usual, I need all the help I can get in this crowd.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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