Alfonso Soriano has made it clear to the Washington Nationals that he won't play in the outfield, and there is a chance, albeit a small one, that he won't have to. I don't expect him to win this fight, but it is probable that the Major League Baseball Players Association at least will attempt to make a case for Soriano to stay off baseball's disqualified list.
Soriano and the Nationals are in a staredown this week over the player's role after the team issued an ultimatum: Begin playing left field by Thursday or land on Major League Baseball's disqualified list without pay. Soriano wants to play second base, currently manned by Jose Vidro, and refused to take the field to play left in Monday night's exhibition game against the Dodgers.
If he refuses again on Wednesday and Thursday, and Nationals' general manager Jim Bowden follows through on his threat to place Soriano on the disqualified list, the MLBPA can be expected to step in and defend him. The union can argue on Soriano's behalf that the Nationals will be diminishing his worth if they force him to play left field.
The union argument goes like this: If Soriano's production at the plate is measured against other second basemen in the majors, he is arguably the best at that position in baseball -- even taking into consideration his shaky defense -- and thus he should be paid as the best. But as an outfielder, his offensive numbers, while still strong, might not place him in the very top tier of players who command the highest salaries.
Soriano's 2005 salary of $7.5 million was the highest among full-time second basemen, which in this logic would be commensurate with his statistics compared to his peers. He ranked first among second basemen in home runs (35 as a second baseman; he hit 36 overall), runs batted in (101) and stolen bases (30), second in runs scored (101) and third in slugging percentage (.511). As a point of reference, Jeff Kent (with a 2005 salary of $7.35 million) hit 28 home runs and drove in 97 runs as a second baseman, while Craig Biggio ($3 million) hit 26 home runs with 68 RBI playing second.
This offseason, Soriano lost his arbitration hearing but nonetheless was awarded a 2006 salary of $10 million, the highest salary ever awarded in arbitration.
Among left fielders last year, Manny Ramirez of the Red Sox earned $19.8 million, and hit 45 home runs with 144 RBI. All of those numbers were the highest in the majors.
The union can argue that power hitting outfielders are easier to locate and sign than power hitting second basemen, and so a player such as Soriano ought to be able to command the very top dollars for his services at a position more often played by singles hitters. That sort of production from second base is a high-demand luxury few teams enjoy.
Perhaps one of the reasons Soriano is so adamant about staying at second is that he can become a free agent after this season, and a home-run-hitting free-agent second baseman is likely to attract more lucrative offers than a free-agent outfielder whose power production is strong but perhaps not significantly greater than a number of his peers in the outfield.
Here, though, is the Catch 22 for Soriano: If the Nationals put him on the disqualified list, he will live in baseball purgatory and not accrue service time toward free agency eligibility. He won't have played the final year of his current contract.
While the union's argument, if that's what it uses, is novel, it likely won't win. Yes, power-hitting second basemen are few and far between, but it always has been the prerogative of management to decide who plays where. Any arbitrator, in all likelihood, would rule that to take away that prerogative would severely disrupt the team nature of baseball.
In the end, in my opinion, Soriano will either play left field or spend the summer at home.
Roger Cossack is ESPN's legal analyst.