Some of you may have been following the showdown between the Washington Nationals and Alfonso Soriano on whether Soriano would move from second base to left field this year. Earlier this week Soriano refused to take the field in an exhibition game. A showdown over whether the Nationals could force Soriano to play the outfield or put him on the "Disqualified List" (suspended without pay) was averted yesterday when Soriano agreed to play where he was told to play. Fielding percentage statistics indicate that Soriano is one of the worst-fielding second basemen in the league.
Michael McCann on the Sports Law Blog has a brief comment on the Soriano fall out and whether there is any precedent here. Aside from the obvious question about whether the Nats could tell Soriano where to play, and suspend him if he wouldn't move, was the question of whether Soriano would have accrued service time for purposes of free agent eligibility during his period on the disqualified list. Accroding to an article in yesterday's Wa PoSoriano has 5-1/2 years of service, and 6 is required to be eligible for free agency (his individual contract expires this year).
My guess is that in this case it was precisely the promise of free agency that induced Soriano to make the move. Since he will be a free agent at the end of the season, I assume he wanted to try to protect his reputation in order to maximize his value. I would think that a team would still have to be nuts to want to take him on board (of course, I had no idea who would want to take Terrell Owens either...).
One suspects that although this showdown was averted, the issue will almost certainly arise with some player in the future. I am not an employment law expert (so please enlighten me if I'm wrong), but the basic issue would seem to be pretty straightforward--of course this seems like a reasonable request by the manager. McCann asks though, what if a team asked a player to switch to catcher, which seems like a big difference in performance obligations? McCann comments on some of the contractual provisions we might expect to see in future contracts.