Dunn Gives Nationals a Shot in the Arm

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, February 13, 2009

Finally, the Nationals can smile. And show their faces when they do it.

After three years as owners, the Lerner family can point at Adam Dunn -- all 275 pounds of him, with five straight 40-homer seasons -- and say, as Mark Lerner did yesterday: "We are thrilled. . . . D.C. should expect no less. . . . This is a demonstration of our commitment."

Thrilled isn't too strong a word for a player like Dunn. He'll probably help make the team respectable and entertaining, though still far from a winner, in a hurry. As for the District, after the ballpark the city built the Nats, the town really should expect no less. And a two-year, $20 million Dunn deal, on top of a nine-year, $180 million bid to Mark Teixeira, removes much, though not all, of the burden of proof about ownership's commitment to a credible team.

The Lerners aren't off the hook. One excellent signing, at a bargain price in a collapsing free agent market, doesn't suddenly transform a franchise. But grabbing Dunn, who's underrated after playing on eight losing Reds teams, it's far more than a start. It's a statement. And, unless you don't enjoy tape-measure home runs, 100 walks, runs and RBI a season, an excellent .381 on-base percentage and a gentle-giant personality, Dunn is also cause for excitement.

"I'm here to win games. I'm not here to sell tickets," the 6-foot-6 Dunn said. But he will.

As I sit in Nationals Park typing, looking at the right field mezzanine, I wonder if those season tickets I canceled are just about 417 feet from the plate -- the average length of Dunn's 40 homers last season, the longest in baseball. Sure hope the people in my old seats don't get pounded to death.

Dunn's poor defense, big strikeout totals and all-or-nothing style of hitting may annoy purists who love situational hitting and a clutch gift against tough pitchers. But, on a team whose top three "sluggers" combined for only 41 homers last year, many fans will relish the option of spending a summer night watching a big, friendly Texas galoot who studies lots of film and scouting reports, then takes his best guess up to the plate, waits interminably for the pitch he wants, then, if he gets it, sees if he can put it into low earth orbit. That distant "10" sign on the right field concourse -- with a huge hop, it's in danger.

That's all Dunn does. Study hard. Have a plan. Stick to it. Be patient. Swing hard. Take walks. Ignore K's. Catch what he can. Run hard, if not fast. Help in the clubhouse. Repeat the process the next day. For the Nats, that's plenty. But for some contenders it's not enough.

Such powers want a high-average, Gold-Glove Teixeira. As the Nats now know, it's the Yanks who get those guys. D.C. gets Dunn three days before spring training when he realizes that joining buddies Austin Kearns and Ryan Zimmerman is his most lucrative, if limited, option.

For the Nats, Dunn is a major upgrade and an excellent match. "We may have to open up the right field bleachers for BP," said Stan Kasten, the team's president. "Last year, when our left-handed power was Willie Harris, there wasn't much demand."

It's very hard to significantly improve a team that wins 102 games. But it's comically easy to improve a team that lost 102. It's the only time that being bad is good.

This offseason, the Nats have added a solid 200-inning pitcher (Scott Olsen), a hitter with the second-highest career OPS on the Nats roster (Josh Willingham, .833) and Dunn. They let Tim Redding go to sign Daniel Cabrera: same production, more potential.

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