Phillies expected to pursue Soriano

PHILADELPHIA -- Hoping to protect Ryan Howard in the middle of their lineup, the Philadelphia Phillies are expected to make a strong push for Alfonso Soriano.

General manager Pat Gillick won't speak about specific free agents until Sunday, the first day teams can negotiate with players they're trying to lure, but he and manager Charlie Manuel both indicated Tuesday they'd be interested in Soriano. Manuel even said he's already thought about where he'd hit the slugger.

"I get a lot of suggestions when I go out," Manuel said. "Some people say leave him in the leadoff hole. Some guy said hit him second, hit him third, hit him fourth, hit him fifth. I look at it like, hell, we can hit him somewhere. He can hit anywhere from third, fourth or fifth."

A five-time All-Star, Soriano batted .277 with 46 homers, 95 RBI and 41 steals this year in his first season with the Washington Nationals. He joined Jose Canseco (Oakland 1988), Barry Bonds (San Francisco 1996) and Alex Rodriguez (Seattle 1998) as the only players with 40 homers and 40 stolen bases in the same season.

Soriano, who was moved from second base to the outfield by the Nationals, made $10 million this year after losing in salary arbitration. He had asked for $12 million.

Soriano could seek a deal similar to the $119 million, seven-year contract Carlos Beltran signed with the New York Mets in 2004. The Phillies would likely offer fewer years and an average of $15 million to $17 million per season. Gillick is adamantly opposed to a full no-trade clause, so that could become a sticking point.

"It's a deal-breaker for me," Gillick said, adding that he'd give a limited no-trade clause.

The right-handed-hitting Soriano is an ideal fit to bat behind Howard, who didn't get many pitches to hit down the stretch. Howard batted .313 with 58 homers and 149 RBI in his second season in the majors. The All-Star first baseman walked 108 times, including 33 intentional walks.

Howard began the season hitting sixth in the order but settled into the No. 4 spot behind Chase Utley in the second half. Left fielder Pat Burrell often batted fifth after Howard, but he struggled and Jeff Conine and David Dellucci hit in that important spot in the final weeks during Philadelphia's failed playoff push.

Soriano, a leadoff hitter most of his career, has averaged 37 homers, 97 RBI and 33 steals during the last five seasons. He began his career with the New York Yankees and played two years with the Texas Rangers after he was traded for Rodriguez in February 2004. The Rangers sent Soriano to Washington last December for outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge plus a minor-league pitcher.

New Phillies first-base coach Davey Lopes, who held the same position with the Nationals last year, raved about Soriano.

"They said he wouldn't hit that many homers in D.C. because of the ballpark, but he made that a small ballpark," Lopes said. "Pound for pound, nobody hits the ball as far as this guy. He has so many pluses it's ridiculous. He's an even better person off the field. He brings energy to the game like nobody I've ever seen. His smile is there every day. He's very popular with his teammates and he loves to play."

The Phillies expect to keep their payroll around $90 million and have some flexibility because they traded Bobby Abreu ($13.6 million) and pitcher Randy Wolf ($9 million) and catcher Mike Lieberthal ($7.5 million) became free agents. However, Utley ($500,000) and pitcher Brett Myers ($3.3 million) are eligible for arbitration and figure to get big raises.

Philadelphia hopes to trade Burrell, who is due $27 million over the next two seasons. But it will be difficult to move Burrell because he has a no-trade clause and hasn't lived up to his potential.

Gillick said other priorities include getting another starting pitcher and adding bullpen depth. Manuel said he's satisfied with Abraham Nunez at third base and the catching tandem of Chris Coste and Carlos Ruiz.

The Phillies overcame a poor start and a midseason roster purge to take a half-game lead in the NL wild-card race with seven games remaining only to fall short on the final weekend for the second straight year.