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A Boost and a Blast

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.

The Nats have two other trump cards. As the youngest and most-injured team in '08, they've gotten a year older and a winter healthier. Each is worth some wins.

But Manny Acta was correct in the recruiting pitch he made to Dunn. The manager implored Dunn to "come here so the rest [of future free agents] can follow, so we can have some respectability in the league."

In all likelihood, the Nats just bought two years of respectability, and at a modest price. Last month, I berated the Lerners for not offering Dunn the kind of $36-million-for-three-years deal that would fetch him. I was right. Er, well, sort of. The free agent market imploded. They got him cheaper. Maybe they're okay at this business stuff.

But they should still focus on a free agent reliever. "There are a whole bullpen full of 'em still out there," said General Manager Jim Bowden, adding that big money was out of the question. But medium money buys a lot now.

Dunn's arrival doesn't make the Nats a winner. But, in one day, it stops them from being a joke. Now, they are a normal major league team, worth watching, with promise, not demoralized by frugality. Why, they even go to Viera with an excess of outfielders and first basemen. Can Nick Johnson stay healthy, play first base and (probably a medical fantasy) actually give the Nats a good lineup? Or will Nick be traded, allowing Dunn two years to learn first base. Ah, come to D.C., learn a new position, increase your free agent value. Say goodbye. First, Soriano, now Dunn?

No matter how long Dunn stays, it's likely he'll make friends. He's self-deprecating, likes to talk. "Sometimes it gets me in trouble, but [reporters] will like it," he said.

Of his hitting style -- he sees the second-most pitches in baseball (4.25 per at bat) -- he joked: "It's pretty boring watching me. When I'm studying tape, I fast-forward myself all the time. I go up to the plate with a plan. If I get that pitch, I hit it. If not, see you at first base."

Then Dunn paused and added, "Or in the dugout."

Since Bowden first signed Dunn away from the University of Texas for the Reds, he has known exactly what Dunn was. "A great slugger. Not hitter. The strikeouts come with it. Just like Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew. We'll take it," Bowden said.

In all baseball history the four players whom Dunn's stats mimic most closely through age 28 are Jackson, Killebrew, Jose Canseco and Darryl Strawberry. Dunn leads them all in homers, runs and walks. Will Dunn have a long healthy career like the first two and end someday with 600 homers, 1,500 runs and RBI and 1,800 walks? Or will he fade fast like the other two?

And will Dunn still be in Washington when we find out the answer? Unlikelier baseball matches have been made. Two years could turn into more. At least Dunn is doing his part. He's pumped. Who knew he was a museum guy? "I saw the Newseum on TV," he said. "I can't wait to go."

To Nats fans, Dunn may seem like some large ancient beast out of the Natural History Museum, a Hondosaurus.

"I've got a lot to learn. About all I know is there's a beautiful ballpark and the Capitol is here," he laughs. "And it's the most important city in the world. It's exciting.

"I can't imagine this place when we put up a winner."

It's been so long that nobody can. But, after this one giant National step, it's no longer impossible to imagine.

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