Nationals and Adam Dunn Agree to Two-Year Deal

Adam Dunn agreed to a two-year, $20 million deal, the most annually the Nats have given to a free agent but less than Dunn made last year.
Adam Dunn agreed to a two-year, $20 million deal, the most annually the Nats have given to a free agent but less than Dunn made last year. (By Dave Einsel -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009

Aiming to legitimize their lineup and energize their fan base, the Washington Nationals yesterday agreed to a preliminary two-year, $20 million deal with Adam Dunn, the 29-year-old free agent they have pursued for more than a month. The team is planning a news conference today to announce the signing, which reverses the course of an inactive offseason just days before the Nationals report for spring training.

By signing Dunn, the Nationals fulfilled their longstanding mission to find a left-handed power hitter. Dunn will provide Washington with perhaps its most legitimate power threat since baseball returned to the District. His arrival also closes speculation, debated for years now, about the club's willingness to pay for higher-end free agents.

Washington obtained the highest annually paid free agent in its franchise history only after plenty of waiting. In December, the team fell short in its bid to land Mark Teixeira, the premier offensive player on the market. In January, the team turned its attention to Dunn, but the weak economy slowed player movement to a standstill.

February, though, brought urgency. Dunn, who earned $13 million last year, needed a team. The Nationals, perhaps more than any other team in baseball, needed Dunn.

Neither General Manager Jim Bowden nor Greg Genske, Dunn's agent, returned phone calls yesterday. Washington released no information about the signing.

"Jim Bowden has been eyeing Adam Dunn for a long time," said Barry Larkin, a teammate of Dunn's in Cincinnati and a Washington front-office member from 2005 until 2008. "You will see a lot of long, high home runs. Strap up your boots, because this guy can hit 'em. And that's an excitement that has not yet been seen in Washington."

Since finishing the 2008 season with 117 home runs, second worst in the National League, Washington had targeted a left-hander capable of strengthening the lineup and, in turn, lessening the burden on the team's young nucleus. No Washington player hit more than 14 home runs last year. In each of the last five years, Dunn has hit no fewer than 40. Among active major leaguers younger than 30, only one, Albert Pujols (319), has more home runs than Dunn's 278.

But Dunn, who split last season between the Reds and Arizona Diamondbacks, is a lifetime .247 hitter. After Dunn struck out for the 190th time in 2004, at the time surpassing Bobby Bonds's single-season record, he quipped, "At least I beat a Bonds at something."

And though Dunn fills a clear hole in Washington's lineup -- he'll no doubt bat fourth -- he complicates the team's defensive situation. Dunn plays two positions, left field and first base, but flourishes at neither. If Washington uses Dunn at first base, he will supplant the talented but injury-prone Nick Johnson, who missed much of last season with a wrist injury. If Washington uses Dunn in left field, somebody in the Josh Willingham-Elijah Dukes-Lastings Milledge-Austin Kearns logjam will find either a bench role or a new team.

If nothing else, Dunn's signing opens up a host of trade possibilities and creates the kind of depth -- and a means to temper the costliness of injuries -- that Washington lacked in 2008.

"He's been as consistently productive as anyone over the last four or five years," said Aaron Boone, a teammate of Dunn's in Cincinnati who played in 2008 with Washington. "You can pretty much pencil in what he's going to be. And just the presence he'll create now of stretching that lineup all the more. It's all of a sudden a very deep lineup."

No matter how Dunn fits in, his presence has the potential to revitalize interest in the Nationals, whose pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Fla., on Saturday. Last year, the team's paltry television and radio ratings -- coupled with middling attendance at Nationals Park -- indicated that the franchise very much needed a spark heading into its second year in the new ballpark.

In 2008, Washington lost 102 games, most in baseball. Its earlier inabilities to lure free agents this offseason triggered a fear that the Nationals would start 2009 with only a modest makeover -- most notably, the well-received November trade with Florida that netted Willingham and pitcher Scott Olsen.

But the deal with Dunn was struck in large part because of connections. Bowden, then Cincinnati's general manager, drafted Dunn in the second round in 1998. Four years later, after Dunn broke into the big leagues, Bowden said that Dunn "has a chance to be one of the best power hitters of our time." In Cincinnati, Dunn became close friends with Kearns, also drafted by the Reds in 1998.

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