John Donovan
Friday March 16th, 2007

MESA, Ariz. -- Not quite a year ago, just as Alfonso Soriano was starting to settle into his new digs in the Nationals' outfield, I asked him what the big objection to his new assignment was in the first place. Why did he put up such a snit in moving from second base to left field, an objection that made him, for much of last spring, the face of the pampered, privileged, selfish pro athlete?

He said, in effect, that he was scared. Scared that he couldn't play outfield. Scared that he'd embarrass himself.

Now, Soriano is on the move again, this time from left to center field, this time with the Cubs. The other day, manager Lou Piniella made it official: Soriano, not rookie Felix Pie and not anyone else, will be his center fielder on Opening Day.

Soriano, remember, has never played center field. Up until last year, he had never played outside of the infield. But with his new $136 million contract in his back pocket and a home in Chicago assured for at least the next eight years, he insists that he's no longer playing scared.

He's just playing cautiously. Very cautiously.

"As soon as I got here in Spring Training, I started working on it," Soriano said. "It's not that different. The difference is, you have to cover more and more. You have to cover both gaps. But I think everybody has this same problem: Those line drives that come right at your head.

"You don't know if it's going to drop down, or whether you should keep going back or what."

By most accounts, Soriano is taking to the new position well, or as well as anyone can tell in near-perfect weather conditions in the Phoenix area. He spent much of a recent sunny morning at Mesa's Ho Ho Kam Park shagging balls in batting practice. While most shaggers mull around, Soriano was in a ready position -- bent over, hands on knees, staring intently in at the plate -- for most of the session.

Piniella has few doubts as to whether Soriano can do the job, and he certainly seems willing to put up with a few slips and stumbles along the way. Soriano is here, after all, for his bat and his speed. Decent defense is a bonus.

"I had thought about [moving Soriano to center], and had talked to [general manager] Jim Hendry about it," Piniella said. "We were going to ease him into it. But since he brought it up, it was just a natural thing to do."

Piniella, so far, is impressed with Soriano's work in the outfield. "I haven't seen anything that's led me to believe that he won't play well in center field," the skipper said. "He's a great kid. He's going to do, within reason, anything we want him to."

Soriano learned to like playing left field with the Nationals, especially in Washington when he had a chance to interact with the fans. He expects to like playing center field even more. But playing center in Wrigley, with its day games, its winds and the famed ivy-covered brick walls is a challenge for even the most seasoned of outfielders.

"I feel very comfortable here in Arizona. But a lot of people tell me about the wind in Wrigley Field. We'll see when I get there," he said. "I can't wait to go there. I want to have the same feeling in Chicago that I have here."

Of all the positives around Royals camp this spring -- and everyone in Surprise is silly happy about their team -- nothing looks and sounds better than the team's perpetually upbeat closer, Octavio Dotel.

"I feel like Superman," Dotel screamed across the practice field the other day.

"I do feel good. I do feel good. I'm not going to lie to you," Dotel told me later that day. "I don't know if I feel like Superman, but I feel good."

Dotel certainly is looking like Superman, buzzing the radar guns with fastballs at 95 mph and above. That's leading the optimistic Royals to hope that he'll be more the guy that used to set up Billy Wagner in Houston in the early part of the decade than the one who has struggled through the past few years with the A's and the Yankees.

Dotel had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow almost two years ago and just now, after signing a one-year deal with the Royals with a player option for a second year, he's getting back to his flame-flinging self. It's often said around baseball circles that pitchers can come back from Tommy John surgery better than they ever were. But Dotel says that doesn't give the pitchers enough credit.

"The reason you come back stronger is all the work you put in on your shoulder. People don't realize that," Dotel said. "People think that just because they put a new ligament in your elbow, that's why you're going to throw hard. It's how hard you work on your shoulder to cover your elbow."

As well as the 33-year-old Dotel is throwing -- this guy is so easy-going that general manager Dayton Moore says, "I'd have dinner with him 10 times in 10 nights" -- he still isn't completely satisfied. He said he'd like to add another 2 mph to his fastball.

"I think I can get more out of me," he said. "If I get that command, with 97 [mph], that would be huge."

Whatever comes of Mark Prior's start Friday on a minor-league field in Mesa, this much is clear: For the former first-round pick to actually make the Cubs' big-league team and not get demoted to the minor leagues, something stunning is going to have to happen in the last two weeks of spring training. Like a couple of freak injuries to other pitchers and a sudden, seismic turnaround on Prior's part.

He's been that bad this spring. His stuff is that weak. There is that little hope for a rapid recovery.

"This is not life and death, or make it or break it," Piniella said in an attempt to stave off the gloom and doomers that always seem to surround Prior and his pitching mate, Kerry Wood. "This is just a progression of sorts."

Prior's scheduled "B" start, in effect, is more of a "C" or "D" game. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild was scheduled to be on hand, ready to stop Prior -- mid at-bat, if necessary -- to straighten out any mechanical flaws he sees. The hope is that Prior can work out some things in a lower-pressure setting rather than the bigger stage of a regular spring training game.

After Prior's Friday start, the Cubs plan on putting him back into the regular spring rotation. The chances of him being in the rotation Opening Day, though, are somewhere between not happening and zero. Piniella said that Prior already is behind Wade Miller (36 starts in the past three years combined, including just five last year) and Angel Guzman (10 career starts, all last year) for the fifth spot in the rotation. The other four are held down by Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis and Rich Hill.

In fact, Piniella shot down any chance Prior may have at sticking in the team's loaded bullpen, too. "You start running into some number problems there," the manager said.

Prior's fall off the cliff has been amazing in its totality. He was an 18-game winner as a 22-year-old in 2003 but since has fought through all sorts of ailments, including a shoulder he screwed up in a collision with Atlanta's Marcus Giles, an elbow broken by a batted ball and a strained Achilles tendon.

The most perplexing part of Prior's current problems is that, finally, he is healthy. Yet his fastball doesn't crack 90 mph any longer and his command has been awful. The Cubs are hoping that they can pick out something -- anything -- in the right-hander's mechanics that will return him to the dominating form he once had.

What they don't want to do is push him and possibly ruin what's left of his career.

"We'll see what happens," Piniella said to a playoff-sized throng of reporters at Ho Ho Kam Park on Thursday morning. "I don't really have any answers for you."

That, in a nutshell, is the problem.

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