What if the Nats never acquired Alfonso Soriano?

All this time off has given us plenty of opportunity to look back and fondly remember events of the past 15 years. Great games that were won. Great players that made an impact. Big decisions that had long-lasting ramifications for the future of the organization.

But what if some of those big moments didn’t happen? What if one of those decisions wasn’t made the same way? What impact would that have had on the Nationals in the long term?

I’ve thought of several possible moves that could’ve gone the other way, but the one I keep coming back to was the one I’d argue set in motion the most significant chain of events that helped shape this franchise for many years to come.

Soriano-Alfonso-AB-ASG-sidebar.jpgThe transaction in question: The trade for Alfonso Soriano at the 2005 Winter Meetings.

For those who don’t remember, ex-general manager Jim Bowden made an unexpected big splash on the final night of those meetings in Dallas. While most of the scuttlebutt that week involved the Nationals’ pursuit of a free agent starting pitchers such as A.J. Burnett, Bowden surprised everyone with a late-night deal with the Rangers involving several big names.

Bowden traded outfielders Brad Wilkerson (one of the most popular members of the inaugural 2005 squad) and Terrmel Sledge (who hit the first homer in team history), plus a pitching prospect named Armando Galarraga, to Texas for Soriano.

Soriano was a big deal at the time. He had been an All-Star each of the previous four seasons and finished third in MVP voting in 2002 when he fell one homer shy of joining the 40-40 Club. He had just hit 36 homers with 104 RBIs and 30 steals for the Rangers in 2005. He would instantly become the biggest star on the Nationals.

Just one problem. Well, actually two problems. Soriano was entering the final year of arbitration and would be eligible for free agency after the 2006 season. And the Nats needed him to move from second base to left field to account for veteran Jose Vidro, who was already entrenched at second.

It took some real convincing - which only happened after a spring training game in which Soriano refused to take his position in left field - but Soriano relented and wound up benefitting greatly from it. He would be an outfielder the rest of his career, and though he never challenged for a Gold Glove Award he did lead the National League with 22 assists in 2006.

Soriano’s debut season at the plate for the Nationals, meanwhile, was electric. He hit 46 homers, still a club record. He stole 41 bases, getting himself into the exclusive 40-40 Club. And he was a joy for fans to watch on a nightly basis, especially on a team that had little else going for it during a 71-91 campaign.

Throughout the season, though, Soriano’s pending free agency loomed large. By late July, with the Nationals well out of contention, it was clear Bowden had to make a decision. He either needed to re-sign Soriano to a long-term extension that would make him the face of the franchise for many years, or he needed to trade him for prospects.

When July 31 arrived, everyone assumed a trade was inevitable. Then the deadline passed, and Soriano remained on the roster. Bowden’s rationale, as he explained that afternoon? None of the trade offers he received was better in his mind than the two draft picks the Nats would get as compensation if Soriano left via free agency.

In today’s world, that’s viewed as logical thinking. In 2006, it was highly unconventional. But to his credit, Bowden was right. The best trade offer he received at the time - if you believe him - was right-hander Kevin Slowey of the Twins. Other teams weren’t willing to offer Bowden the high-end prospects he desired, including a young Angels second baseman named Howie Kendrick.

It was a big gamble, but it paid off. The first compensatory draft pick the Nationals got after Soriano signed a jaw-dropping, eight-year, $136 million deal with the Cubs was used on a left-hander named Josh Smoker, who never panned out. The second compensatory pick was used on a right-hander from tiny Division II Wisconsin-Stevens Point named Jordan Zimmermann.

Yeah, that one worked out well.

While Soriano never came close to living up to his contract in Chicago, Zimmermann became an integral part of the Nationals’ rotation for seven seasons, going 70-50 with a 3.32 ERA and 1.159 WHIP. He threw the first no-hitter in team history. He made two All-Star teams. He averaged 203 innings pitched per season.

But he didn’t stay in D.C. after his contract expired, turning down a nine-figure offer from the Nationals and ultimately signing a five-year, $110 million deal with the Tigers that hasn’t worked out at all. In his first four seasons in Detroit, Zimmermann went 25-41 with a 5.61 ERA and 1.431 WHIP. He averaged 127 innings per season. Last year, he was 1-13 with a 6.91 ERA.

What if Zimmermann had agreed to the Nationals’ long-term offer? In all likelihood, they never would’ve signed Max Scherzer for $210 million prior to the 2015 season. At the time, it felt like a gamble. In hindsight, it’s the best decision Mike Rizzo has made in his decade-plus as GM.

So if you want to play the Domino Effect Game, you can go all the way back to that December 2005 night at the Anatole Hotel in Dallas and wonder what would’ve happened if Bowden didn’t acquire Soriano ...

* Wilkerson would’ve remained in D.C. for another season.

* Soriano wouldn’t have played a game for the Nats.

* Galarraga might’ve reached the majors for the Nationals (and never thrown his near-perfect game for the Tigers in 2010).

* The Nats wouldn’t have received the compensatory draft pick they used on Zimmermann and maybe would never have drafted him.

* Scherzer may never have signed with the Nationals.

Sure, it’s impossible to say with certainty how one non-move would’ve altered all those other moves that came later. But it’s fair to say the Soriano trade had major ramifications for the Nats that went far beyond his one exciting season in town.

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