The Nationals say they believe the dispute -- which has haunted the team since the Dec. 7 trade that brought Soriano to Washington from the Texas Rangers -- will never reach the point of full-blown confrontation. In a meeting between team officials and Soriano and his agent last Thursday, the sides essentially agreed to put off a decision about how to proceed for almost a month. In the meantime, they have agreed not to discuss the issue publicly.
"It doesn't help to speculate," said Bob Boone, the Nationals' special assistant to the general manager. "We're trying to build a relationship here. What we don't want here is a T.O. situation." He was referring to Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens, who was suspended indefinitely by the team for "conduct detrimental to the team."
The Nationals believe the Soriano issue will never reach that point. While Soriano is away from the team for nearly three weeks, playing for his native Dominican Republic in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, team officials will have ample time to evaluate the surgically repaired right knee of incumbent second baseman Jose Vidro. If Vidro is injured, Soriano would move seamlessly into the second base job. And if they are healthy when Soriano returns from the WBC around March 21, the Nationals likely would pursue a trade of Soriano or Vidro.
However, both players' salaries -- Soriano makes $10 million this season, while Vidro makes $7 million, $7.5 million and $8.5 million over the next three seasons -- will make it difficult to trade either one, and team officials, while privately hoping Soriano changes his mind and accepts the move to left field, are also preparing for the possibility they may be forced to take a hard-line stance.
"We are not ones to back down," said one team official, who, like several other people interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Diego Bentz, Soriano's agent, declined to comment on the player's stance, saying, "I don't want to show all my cards."
Officials of the league office and the union are taking notice as well. Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of labor relations, declined an interview request for this story. However, a management source familiar with the team's position said it is a simple issue of an employer's right to dictate the terms of work.
"The club, like every other employer, has the right to direct the work force," the source said. "If an employee refuses the direction, he is subject to discipline, including fines, suspension without pay and termination."
However, Gene Orza, the union's chief operating officer, argued that the issue is not so finely defined.
"Theoretically, the club would fine and suspend him," Orza said. "The player would argue that they can't force him to play where he doesn't want to play. . . . Since we're speaking hypothetically, what if they asked [Soriano] to be a pitcher? Could they force him to be a pitcher? It's not as simple as you're making it out to be."
I guess Orza has to at least posture on this issue for the time being...
But at the end of the day, what can the union really do? If Frank Robinson puts Soriano in the lineup at left field, Soriano refuses to play left field, and the team suspends him, what grounds does he really have to challenge it?
And moreover, given that Soriano is a year away from free agency, why on earth does he even think that this is a wise path to take anyway? Doesn't this controversy just serve to make him less valuable this offseason as a free agent?
This whole thing is fascinating...really, at this point, I'm rooting for Soriano to flat refuse to play the outfield, just to see how the resulting confrontation between him and Robinson turns out...