- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- To swerve or not to swerve? That's the philosophical question the Mets are grappling with in a possible deal for Alfonso Soriano. The former Yankee is perfect medicine for a run-starved lineup, but he also represents a detour from the pitching-and-defense rebuilding plan the Mets are clinging to so tightly.
The Mets have been mulling this dilemma ever since the Rangers dropped Soriano's name a few weeks ago. The Mets flatly rejected any trade that would've include Jose Reyes -- cooling talks between the two teams, but hardly ending the mutual interest.
Mets officials believe the Rangers have been scouting Scott Kazmir, a Class A pitching prospect who some say has the potential to be New York's best lefty since Ron Guidry. Kazmir, 20, led all minor league pitchers by averaging 11.94 strikeouts per nine innings in 2003, and is progressing so quickly, he received an emphatic vote of confidence from Mets owner Fred Wilpon.
"I'm not trading away the future of this organization" is what Wilpon said when asked about a Kazmir-for-Soriano swap. "We're sticking with the plan."
But Wilpon hasn't exactly closed the door on Soriano, either. He said, "money isn't the issue here" -- indicating the Mets would have no problem adding another $5.4 million to the 2004 payroll.
The Mets are more concerned about Soriano's defense, and whether he'd be willing to learn to play right field in just a few weeks before Opening Day. Soriano told an intermediary he'd switch positions for a chance to play in New York again -- a message that was relayed to the Mets over the weekend.
In more formal dialogue, however, Soriano distanced himself from any possible trade.
"I am happy to be playing with the Texas Rangers, and I am excited to be with a room full of young players who are starting to build something good," Soriano told the New York Post.
Rangers owner Tom Hicks may not be as enthusiastic, and is said to be looking to trim even more payroll after saving $16 million a year in the Alex Rodriguez trade. Hicks has a relatively affordable offensive weapon in Soriano, but that $5.4 million salary will likely balloon to $8-9 million through salary arbitration in 2005. And with free agency beckoning in 2006, the Rangers could end up paying Soriano as much as $12-14 million a year.
No wonder Texas has its eyes on Kazmir, a Texas native who's not only young and talented, but tantalizingly cheap. The Mets are just as aware of Kazmir's charms, but there are still members of the hierarchy who find it hard to resist the offensive upgrade Soriano offers.
"Are you kidding me," is all one executive said, when asked to measure Soriano's productivity batting in front of Mike Piazza. Not only has Soriano proven he's a perennial 40-40 threat, but he's a .300-caliber hitter who's also New York-tested. In three years with the Yankees, he totaled 95 homers, 266 RBI and 119 stolen bases.
And even though Soriano now admits he lied about his age while in Pinstripes -- he's 28, not 26 -- he still fits into the Mets' quest for under-30 talent. Club officials believe Soriano could, on his own, lift the Mets into instant-respectability in the NL East, if not contention. They've been seeking right-handed power ever since Edgardo Alfonzo was in his prime in 2000, and Soriano fits that profile.
But there are red flags everywhere, too. Soriano is a poor defender who's never mastered any position. He's prone to lapses in the field, and even in the best-case scenarios, would struggle with fly balls at windy, cavernous Shea Stadium.
The flip-side to that argument is that relying to heavily on the career path of any minor leaguer, no matter how talented, is risky business.
"This team learned the hard way," said one Met, referring to Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson and, to a lesser degree, Jason Isringhausen -- all of whom were can't-miss prospects a decade ago. That explains why some veterans are openly endorsing Soriano's candidacy in right field.
Without disrespect for Kazmir's future, Tom Glavine told Newsday, "(Soriano) is a talented guy, a guy we'd all love to have in our lineup. He's quick and athletic, and another guy who fits the mold of what we targeted."
But at least one NL executive thinks the Mets are seriously misguided for everyone considering this deal.
"For what Soriano costs today and next year and the year after, I wouldn't trade for him. He's not worth it, not for Kazmir," said the executive. "Soriano strikes out too much, he doesn't walk and he can't play defense. What else is there to think about?"
Indeed, Soriano's 1-in-3 strikeout to at-bat ratio in the 2003 postseason raised eyebrows everywhere. Pitchers finally found his Achilles' heel -- fastballs in, followed by sliders down and away -- and used Soriano's lack of plate discipline to turn him in a near automatic out.
Which is to say, some days he's the next Roberto Clemente; other days he's the next Raul Mondesi. Go figure.
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.
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