Experience breeds confidence

Soriano finds confidence in center field spotlight

MESA, Ariz. -- What a difference a year makes for Alfonso Soriano.

On March 20, 2006, Soriano was listed in left field in the Washington Nationals' lineup for the first time, but he didn't take the field that day. Only eight players trotted to their positions for the game. Left field was vacant. Soriano was headed home.

Nationals general manager Jim Bowden threatened to put Soriano on the disqualified list if he wouldn't play left. Today, Soriano is the Cubs starting center fielder, and there is no argument from him.

"It's always good that the manager has confidence in the player," Soriano said Thursday. "I feel very comfortable. I've been working two, three weeks in center field and I feel very comfortable. They have confidence I can play center field."

A year ago, that wasn't the case.

"The problem I had in the past was because I didn't believe I could play outfield," said Soriano, who was an All-Star second baseman for the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers.

What happened a year ago? Soriano said he was told before the March 20 game that he was going to be starting in left.

"I said, 'You want to put me in left field?' I said, 'Take me out of the lineup,'" Soriano said. "I went home. I said I didn't want to play left field."

He thought the matter was settled. It wasn't until he went home that he heard about how the lineup hadn't been changed, and how no one went to left.

"It surprised me," he said.

Soriano, 31, did play in left in the Nationals' next game, and stayed there for the 2006 season. Now, he says he appreciates what Bowden did for him.

"He believed I could do it," said Soriano, who made the All-Star team as an outfielder last year, which also helped his confidence.

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"The first time, I didn't want to move," he said. "I just didn't believe I could do it. From then to now, I've been working hard and I've made myself a better player."

The Cubs did not approach Soriano about shifting from left to center when they recruited him in November, and then signed him to an eight-year, $136 million deal. He actually suggested it during the Cubs Convention in January.

"At that point, I didn't think about the position," Soriano said of their contract talks. "I thought about the team and how bad they wanted to win a World Series."

"I'd thought about it, and talked to [Cubs general manager] Jim Hendry about it," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "We were going to ease him into it in Spring Training, but since he brought it up, it was the natural thing to do."

Having Soriano in center aligns the rest of the Cubs outfield. Matt Murton and Cliff Floyd will share left field, and Jacque Jones will stay in right.

"I haven't seen anything that leads me to believe he won't play well in center field," Piniella said. "We've been asking our center fielders to play a little deeper because of the high skies and the way the ball carries [in Arizona]. Outside of that, he's made all the plays he needs to make. He takes balls off the bat every day. He's getting good jumps on balls and he's running good routes. I think he'll be just fine."

The Cubs' main goal is to make sure Soriano is happy so he can repeat his 40-40-40 season that he had last year. He's averaged 37 homers, 97 RBIs and 33 stolen bases over the last five years. His 46 home runs last season were a career high, and he swiped 41 bases to become the fourth player in Major League history to reach the 40-40 mark. Soriano is the first, though, to have at least 40 homers, 40 stolen bases and 40 doubles in a single season.

"I'm not worried about hitting," Soriano said. "When I play defense, I focus on defense. When I'm hitting, I focus on offense. They're two different parts of the game."

He does like center because everything is in front of him. Soriano is used to taking charge on the field, too. He played shortstop, and was the captain of the infield. Now, he'll be the captain of the outfield.

Does he still have a second baseman's glove just in case?

"No," Soriano said with a smile. "If they want me to play second, I have to get one. I've put in my mind that I'm an outfielder."

The Cubs want to keep their mega-million dollar outfielder happy.

"Last year, I played outfield because I didn't have a choice," Soriano said. "This year is different. Last year, I proved to myself I could play outfield. This year, I'm more confident and more comfortable playing outfield."

Soriano and Piniella were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Asked who's better looking, Soriano flashed that $136 million smile.

"I think I'm better looking than [Piniella] in the picture," Soriano said. "I don't want to upset him. He might send me down."

Soriano doesn't have to worry about that happening.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.