Soriano to inject life into Rangers

For as major a player as they were in the whole process, the Texas Rangers have quickly been pushed to the backburner in the Alex Rodriguez-New York Yankees universe.

While the Rangers lick their wounds over the public relations hit they are taking in their home market, the front office is ecstatic with the acquisition of Alfonso Soriano.

The Rangers believe they, too, were winners in what could arguably be categorized as baseball's biggest blockbuster trade, the dealing of the reigning American League MVP to the Yankees.

"This is a win-win situation for both parties,'' Rangers general manager John Hart said. "For us, it puts us in a position for the future, to make the kind of moves we need to in order to contend in the near future, to open up some payroll flexibility. For Alex, it allows him to be with a contender right away, possibly to get into a World Series this year.''

Texas managed to unearth itself from a mountainous pile of cash that was suffocating the franchise after owner Tom Hicks agreed to pay Rodriguez a 10-year, $252 million deal before the 2001 season. In the end, the contract was simply too massive to allow the Rangers to make any worthwhile moves.

"We need to be able to grow and do it right,'' Hart said. "This was the only way.''

So, while Texas will still pay around $9 million in each of the next seven years just to get out from under Rodriguez's deal, that number pales in comparison to the $25-$27 million per year Rodriguez is scheduled to be paid during the same span.

The Rangers now turn their attention toward righting their wayward ship, one that has wallowed in to the AL West cellar the past three years. By all accounts, with one of the youngest rosters in the game, a fourth straight finish in their respective divisional gutter is all but a given.

But that's of little consequence now. Texas is realistic about its chances in 2004. They're looking down the road for their payoff.

The Rangers must now contend with finding a position for their newest star, Soriano, who has been a vagabond of sorts since signing with the Yankees in 1998.

He started as a shortstop in the minors, switched to left field as a rookie and settled at second base in recent seasons. Now the Rangers will try and find a single position for him.

"Of course, everyone would like to have every player stable at one spot leaving spring training and that's our desire,'' Hart said.

So manager Buck Showalter will use the six weeks of spring training to decide whether his club is better with Soriano at shortstop, second base or center field, a spot that intrigues the Rangers front office because of Soriano's speed.

At the same time, the Rangers must find someone to take over for Rodriguez at shortstop, where he started all but one of Texas' 486 games the past three seasons. Michael Young, who primarily saw action at second base last season is the odds-on favorite to take over at short.

But Soriano, whose strong throwing arm from the hole during his days in the minors made several scouts compare him to a young Shawon Dunston, could return to his natural position.

"He's not necessarily going to be a center fielder,'' Hart said. "We see him as a middle of the diamond player. Where that will be is to be determined. We have until opening day.''

While Rodriguez brings impeccable credentials to the Bronx, the Rangers are quick to point out that Soriano's numbers over the past three seasons (his first three as a regular), compare favorably with A-Rod's.

Rodriguez has averaged 52 home runs, 132 RBI, 30 doubles and 15 stolen bases the past three years. Soriano during the same span? 32 homers, 87 RBI, 40 doubles and 40 stolen bases.

"This is not some throw-away player we got here,'' Hart said. "We know he's not Alex Rodriguez, but Alfonso Soriano is a superstar player. Our fans will get to love this guy.''

The Rangers had the worst team ERA (5.67) in the majors last season. But they point to young pitchers Colby Lewis, Joaquin Benoit, R.A. Dickey and Ryan Drese for what Texas officials hope will be a promising future.

"This is a painful process but it will work,'' Hart said. "I've been through it (in Cleveland) and I know it can work. It wasn't working too good here the last three years. We weren't going to win with what we were doing. Not in this climate. Now we have a chance to move forward.''

Pedro Gomez, who is a bureau reporter for ESPN, covered the Oakland A's from 1990-97 for both the San Jose Mercury News and the Sacramento Bee and was the national baseball writer for the Arizona Republic from 1997-2003.