Adam Dunn remains a work in progress as he switches from outfield to first base

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; D03

VIERA, FLA. -- By now, one month into his life as a full-fledged first baseman, Adam Dunn figured he wouldn't have to think so much. Most every action at first base, even the ones fundamental to his position, still requires concentration: Where to look during a pitch, the first step to take after the ball is hit, how to react to a ball thrown at his feet.

There is going to come a time, Dunn believes, when he will perform all of those things by second nature, like hitting the brake at a red light. "It's going to be really fun," Dunn said, "when I can go out there and not think about what I'm doing."

In his transition to first base this spring, progress has come more slowly than Dunn and the Washington Nationals hoped for. General Manager Mike Rizzo classified Dunn's defense as "a work in progress still." Dunn believes he will be a good first baseman. But he also knows, with less than two weeks remaining before opening day, it hasn't happened yet.

"It's not going, I don't think, as good as I wanted it go," Dunn said. "But I'm feeling more comfortable every day out there. It'll get there. Just not as quickly as I thought it would."

Dunn arrived early for spring training, intent not on simply playing first base, but learning it. He manned first for 67 games last year and, by advanced defensive metrics, played the position worse than any first baseman with appreciable playing time. The position was foreign to Dunn last year, and his initial struggles didn't worry him once he made the full-time switch from the outfield. Already, he has grown more comfortable.

"I feel way better than I did last year," Dunn said. "I know what to kind of do."

The Nationals believe Dunn will be an adequate first baseman eventually, but the irregular playing time spring training promotes has not allowed him to settle into a routine.

Dunn's performance this spring has made him lurking at first base late in a close game a discomforting thought. If the season began Thursday, Manager Jim Riggleman said, the Nationals would replace Dunn for defense if the Nationals were winning in the final innings. They also plan on making the measure a temporary procedure.

"That's the goal, is to get to the point where we don't do that," Riggleman said. "There's examples all over baseball where there are some big-time players who are maybe not as good as somebody who could replace them. It's kind of hard to put in words, but you like your big guys, your big-time players, you like them to finish the game on the field rather than be replaced."

Riggleman has a laundry list of potential late-game candidates in mind at first, and the possibilities depend on the composition of the final 25-man roster. Mike Morse, Adam Kennedy, Josh Willingham, Willie Harris and whichever player becomes the utility infielder -- likely Eric Bruntlett -- could see time in the latter innings at first.

Kennedy would be a tricky choice, since he would have to move over from second base and the utility infielder would enter and play second. Kennedy has started two games at first base in his career and played in four.

The need for such lengths shows the extent of Dunn's development.

"I think he's a work in progress still," Rizzo said. "He's got to come a lot farther than he has right now. He's working hard."

On Tuesday night, Dunn let a ball he thought he could have fielded roll past him. The problem was clear -- he had taken a slow first step. The root of the problem came down to a basic nuance Dunn has yet to master.

In the outfield, Dunn had ample time to watch a play develop and track the ball. At first base, he has to focus on something as simple as where to fix his gaze during the pitcher's delivery. Sometimes, he has trouble following the ball from the pitcher's hand to the bat to the moment it is bounding toward him.

"See, my big thing is, I watch the pitcher throw the ball," Dunn said. "By the time it gets into the hitting zone, I'm late. I'm trying to really zone in on the hitting zone and reading it off the bat."

He is also getting used to the parameters he should cover. During a recent game, Dunn ranged to his right for a ball hit almost directly at the second baseman. "I was kind of seeing how far I could go," Dunn said. He scurried back to first barely in time to receive the throw.

When Dunn makes a misstep, he knows why. That's both an improvement over last season and, for Dunn, a reason for optimism. He understands he may never become a great first baseman, but a month into his new position, Dunn still believes he'll be good enough.

"There's no reason why I wouldn't be able to do that," Dunn said.

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