Soriano adjusting to new position

Associated Press • Mar 31, 2007 at 1:09 AM

MESA, Ariz. - Alfonso Soriano's switched teams for a third time in three years. He's also playing a third different position in as many seasons.

And talking about big changes, how about his big bump-up in pay?

With the biggest contract in Chicago Cubs history, an eight-year, $136 million deal, Soriano has spent the spring finding his way around center field.

He's used his speed to cover ground, worked on finding the right routes to the ball after it leaves the plate and tried to adjust to covering both gaps.

But there are also times when he looks a little out of place and resembles what he is - a player learning a new and important position.

For instance last Wednesday. That's when he missed a sinking liner for an error, couldn't reach another deep ball that went over his head, and he and right fielder Jacque Jones let a fly ball fall between them.

So it could be an adventure at times, especially in Wrigley Field where the wind and the sun and vines can play additional tricks on any outfielder.

But Soriano is enjoying the new challenge.

"I actually see the ball better, I have to work a little more because I have to cover both gaps, I like running so I can use my speed on defense and not only when I'm hitting," Soriano said.

Soriano initially refused to play the outfield the first time then Nationals manager Frank Robinson tried to put him there during spring training a year ago. Soriano relented and ended up with 22 outfield assists and another berth in the All-Star game.

New Cubs manager Lou Piniella decided Soriano was the best option for center field instead of putting him in one of the corner spots.

"He's been a second baseman his whole career. He's got the middle-of-the-field angle. He's worked hard on his routes, getting jumps on balls. I've actually liked what I've seen from him," Piniella said.

"It's a more demanding position. We've got to help him with the alleys. ... If you can play center field in Arizona with the high sky and the sun and the way the ball carries and with the spaciousness of the playing field, I don't see why you can't do it once the major league season starts."

For sure, the Cubs want Soriano to be an asset defensively. But he didn't get his big contract because of his glove. He's in Chicago for his speed and his power in the leadoff spot.

A .280 career hitter with 208 homers and 210 stolen bases, he's being counted on to get on base and run, drive in runs and hit the ball over the fence - a rare combination for a leadoff hitter.

He has a knack for striking out - he whiffed 160 times last season - but that's part of the tradeoff. He also hit 46 homers.

And Soriano promises he won't press because of his huge contract, one of the largest in baseball history.

"I've got pressure to play hard every day because there will be 40,000 at the game now," he said of Wrigley Field's customary sellouts. "Not just because of the money. The money is always there in this game. I'm excited about playing the game and I'm not worried about the money."

The Cubs, without a World Series title since 1908, spent millions in the offseason to build a contender. Putting Soriano at the top of a lineup that also includes Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez should make them a big player in the NL Central.

"I think Soriano, he's the perfect superstar because he just wants to be one of the guys," said Cubs second baseman Mark DeRosa, who was teammates with Soriano in Texas.

"He doesn't hold himself higher than anyone in this clubhouse, even though we hold him to a higher standards. We expect great things from him. He just wants to be one of the guys, which is very refreshing."

Soriano hit four homers this spring. Moving around the field and changing teams is something he's learning to handle. He'll have to get used to the often cold early season temperatures at his new home ballpark.

"Making adjustments to me, I think the hard part came when I got traded from the Yankees to Texas," he said. "That's not even a position, that's just trading teams. So after that, any trade that happens to me, I think I can be a little more relaxed."

Especially now in the outfield.

"I believe in myself," he said.

"Last year I didn't want to play (there). I didn't know myself when I had to start playing in the outfield. As soon as I believed, I had no problem."

AP-CS-03-30-07 1649EDT

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