Jacob Luft, SI.com
Pillory Alfonso Soriano if you like, but at least give the skinny, shy second baseman -- err, left fielder -- from the Dominican Republic credit for standing up for himself by sitting out an exhibition game earlier this week. This is what passes for civil disobedience in this country nowadays, even if it is coming from a pro athlete making an eight-figure salary.
Soriano was upset about being moved from second base to the outfield, where he has played nary a single game during his major league career. By Wednesday, he was back on the field trying to learn a new position that he hopes will only be a one-year temporary assignment before he leaves town via free agency.
This wouldn't be an issue had the Nationals not traded a better, cheaper outfielder (Brad Wilkerson, among others) to the Rangers for Soriano despite already having an All-Star at the position. The duty of helping the franchise save face for a trade that didn't make sense on any level was bestowed upon Soriano, who naturally took umbrage at the treatment.
Granted, Soriano is no Bill Mazeroski with the leather. To even label him as "adequate" would be generous. But Soriano isn't necessarily wrong in his stated desire to remain at second base, either, if not for the Nationals then for the next team he plays for. Let me explain by taking a closer look at exactly how costly his defense is to a ball club compared with what he adds with his bat.
According to John Dewan's recently released The Fielding Bible, which uses video of every play from last season to come up with its numbers, Soriano ranked 34th among second baseman in 2005. He was expected to make 496 plays. Instead he made only 474, for a plus/minus rating of minus-22.
A play not made that results in a single costs a team about three fourths of a run, which means Soriano cost the Rangers about 16 runs on defense -- the rough equivalent of 1.5 wins. A ball club can live with that. Heck, Derek Jeter was even worse on defense -- a minus-34 according to Dewan's system -- and the Yankees still won 95 games. The bottom line is that Soriano, like Jeter, produces enough offensively that you can overlook the shoddy glove work.
Soriano's bat was worth 89 runs created, the third best total among AL second baseman. Take 16 away from 89 and you get a player who was worth plus-73 runs to the Rangers last season. That's not bad. I don't know if a ball club should pay $10 million for that, which is what Soriano will make this year, but he's a more useful player than he's being given credit for by his critics, who seem to have grown in number rather quickly lately.
Part of the anti-Soriano sentiment has come from the new wave of "pitching and defense" disciples spawned by the White Sox' championship. Whether your team succeeds through superior run prevention or run production, the bottom line remains the same: winning comes down to scoring more runs than you allow, regardless of what combination you use to get there. If your club can rake at the plate and pitch at a halfway-decent level, you can still win with a subpar defense (i.e., the 2005 Yankees). If you give away too many outs with sacrifice bunts and caught-stealings to have an effective offense (the 2005 White Sox), you'd better make up for it by having stud pitchers like Mark Buerhle and speedy outfielders like Scott Podsednik and Aaron Rowand turning extra-base hits into outs on defense.
Getting back to Soriano, park factors have to enter the discussion here somewhere. Yes, he did benefit a great deal from playing in Texas the past two seasons. Here are his home/road splits:
2004 Home: .317/.360/.526 Road: .244/.291/.444
2005 Home: 315/.355/.656 Road: .224/.265/.374
Those numbers represent a stark contrast, to be sure. If you want to take the stance that he's nothing more than an Ameriquest Field wonder, there's enough ammunition there to back that up. But you also have to remember that this is the same player who, prior to joining the Rangers, posted back-to-back 40-homer seasons with the Yankees, whose home stadium plays like Yosemite for right-handed hitters. His Yankee Stadium OPSs were above .800 in both seasons.
Finally, moving Soriano to left field is no guarantee that he will cease to be a defensive liability. Who would you guess did more damage to his team on defense last season, Soriano as a second baseman or Manny Ramirez as a left fielder? According to Dewan's work, Ramirez made 14 fewer plays than expected at his position, costing the Red Sox 31 total bases, nine more than Soriano cost the Rangers. (Outfielders give up extra-base hits; middle infielders give up singles.)
Washington's temporary home park, RFK Stadium, has a huge outfield. If the Nationals had an owner -- and a GM that wasn't pulled off the set of Cold Pizza, for that matter -- they could have gotten serious about winning and acquired some Mike Cameron-types to take advantage of the barn they play in. As it is they have an unhappy former second baseman playing left field only because the Nationals have threatened to put him on the disqualified list.
Although the standoff has been defused for now, teams needing a second baseman -- the Mets and Cubs, for example -- would be wise to take advantage of this situation. At least that way Soriano's protest will not have been in vain.