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Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Soriano Surrenders: He will Play Left Field for Washington Nationals

Yesterday Joe Rosen posted about Alfonso Soriano's refusal to play the outfield for the Washington Nationals, and how the Nationals had threatened to place him on the Disqualified List, which would have required him to forfeit his salary and would have embarrassed and stigmatized him in the baseball community. A few hours ago, in a sign of D├ętente between the two parties, Soriano acquiesced and agreed to play left field for the Nationals. An All-Star the last four years at second base, Soriano will now take a new position in what will likely be his only season in Washington, as he is set to become a free agent at the season's end. He intends to return to second base in the 2007 season.

Soriano's acquiescence takes away what could have become a landmark case in sports law, as it appears that no player in a major sport has ever refused outright to perform his assigned job. And a fight was clearly on the horizon: the Major League Baseball Players' Association expressed unambiguous support for Soriano, and Attorney Jeffrey Kessler--who argued the case of Terrell Owens for the NFLPA--characterized the purported punishment of Soriano as "excessive" and possibly beyond the scope of any collectively-bargained provision. Had it continued, the dispute between Soriano and the Nationals would have likely been heard by an arbitrator.

Although the Soriano story appears over, the larger issue remains: Should players be forced to forfeit their salaries if they refuse to play a position? If the answer is "yes," then players need to communicate these position preferences to their agents, so that they are negotiated in the contract. Soriano, through his agent Diego Bentz, presumably could have negotiated a position clause in his contract, but I have not read that he did so. Rick Karcher has written extensively about the failure of agents to maximize their clients' preferences, and it is a subject very relevant in this discussion.

But was the putative penalty--forfeiting Soriano's salary and, by placing him on the suspended list, stigmatizing and embarrassing him--appropriate? After-all, he wasn't holding out or bad-mouthing the organization. Nor was seeking more money or necessarily a new team. In fact, he was more than willing to play for the Nationals, at least under a certain set of conditions. Although I normally take the players' side on matters, I tend to think the Nationals had the right to remove Soriano from the team, or any player who engages in positional insubordination. Soriano's contract calls for him to play for the team which pays his contract and presumably in a way that team deems most appropriate. He clearly didn't like being traded from the Rangers to the Nationals, but then again, whose fault is that? Couldn't his agent have negotiated a no-trade clause?

Moreover, it's unlikely that allowing the Nationals to disqualify Soriano would have led to a slippery slope of perverse incentives in professional sports. Along those lines, I find it far-fetched to think that teams would require players to play positions that those players would find so repugnant that forfeiture would actually make sense -- for instance, I can't see the Red Sox telling a vastly overpaid Mike Lowell, "look, we're going to move you from third base to catcher" because they believe he would rather forfeit his $8 million salary than play catcher (although I wish that had tried that maneuver with Kevin Millar last year, but that's another story).



Interesting issue. As you know, I'm very "pro-player," but I think this one is a stretch. Here's my 2 cents:

First, I don't see this as a disciplinary issue. If a player refuses to play, the club has the right to refuse to pay the player (and most arbitrators would rule in favor of the club here). This has to be the right answer, because there would be no limit to the grievances filed by players. For example, a player could say that when the team decides to bat him sixth instead of third, it reduces his market value because he can't drive in as many runs in that slot, and that he had an expectation of batting third when he signed. A pitcher could argue that a team's decision to make him a reliever makes him less valuable than a starter. Or what if a team decides to platoon two players at first and DH throughout the season?

Also, at this point, it's pure speculation whether playing outfield instead of second base is even going to reduce his market value in the future at free agency. His agent can argue that he's a more versatile player if he can play multiple positions well. More to the point, even if he is right that it reduces his value when he becomes a free agent, he can still find a team that wants him as a second baseman.

Finally, I'm not sure whether a player can even condition his contract on playing a certain position. The CBA, Major League Rules, and uniform player contract place certain limitations on the ability of players and teams to get creative. My hunch is that it is not permissible.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 3/23/2006 8:05 AM  

I agree with your and Rick's analysis as far as they go, but you don't go far enough.

The real issue here wasn't Washington's threat to suspend him without pay; I don't see how they could possibly lose on that point. Soriano wasn't merely sulking; he refused to show up at all. I can't see that Soriano's motive for not showing up matters.

The real issue here was Washington's threat that they would place him on the disqualified list, that this would prevent him from accruing service time, and thus that he'd never become a free agent and would always remain Washington's property.

Generally speaking, a disciplinary suspension does not cost a MLB player service time, but generally speaking, disciplinary suspensions are for less serious matters than failing to show up for work.

Blogger David Nieporent -- 3/23/2006 1:27 PM  

The bottom line is the Nationals made a bad trade. They should have not made this trade not knowing if Soriano would move to the outfield. It has been widely known throughout baseball before this that Soriano has said publicaly that he did not want to play outfield.
So if the Red Sox asked Manny or Mike Lowell to pitch or catch, they would have, or if the Astros asked Bagwell to catch, they would have to or you can threten not to pay them. There may be bad faith motives here to get rid of salary, however, in essence it is the same thing. Maybe if they offered Soriano more money he could do it, since outfielders make more than 2bs anyway.
I take the players side on this one, even though a lot of times I think they are being greedy. Maybe Jim Bowded should be fired for making this stupid trade. Dont take the player if he doesnt want to play there!!!

Anonymous tommie -- 3/23/2006 6:57 PM  

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