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Washington Nationals' future lineup likely won't include Adam Dunn

Washington Nationals' Adam Dunn hits a double scoring Washington Ryan Zimmerman, during the second inning of a baseball game against the Florida Marlins on Monday, Aug. 30, 2010 in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Washington Nationals' Adam Dunn hits a double scoring Washington Ryan Zimmerman, during the second inning of a baseball game against the Florida Marlins on Monday, Aug. 30, 2010 in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Wilfredo Lee - AP)

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Let me concede there's a long shot chance I'm wrong. The Nats and Dunn are still on decent terms, and they should be. In free agency, you never know whom you might be dancing with when the music stops.

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"Let him make his decision" about Dunn, said principal owner Mark Lerner on Tuesday night, nodding toward General Manager Mike Rizzo's office. Rizzo, his battalion of scouts, other execs, plus stat nerds, are making the calls these days.

That's how it should be on a sane team. Debate, argue. For example, President Stan Kasten is often a pro-Dunn voice internally. But, ultimately, a team needs to let its "baseball people" make the key decisions - not the owners, fans or media - even though those experts will inevitably be wrong sometimes.

My two cents: They're wrong this time. Dunn, only 30, is the 40-homer 100-RBI machine that provides a cleanup-hitting bridge to the Harper Era, if there is one. And if Harper disappoints, or The Plan crumbles, keeping Dunn is akin to credibility salvation for a team with a thin fragile fan base.

Dunn could get old fast. But more likely, because he has 350 homers now, he'll retire as one of the top 10 honest home run hitters of all time.

The past two years, Zimmerman has blossomed with Dunn hitting behind him. And such a potent 3-4 combo makes the No. 2 hole in the Nats' order the proverbial "rocking chair," where a potential future star of your choice, whether it's Desmond, Espinosa or Bernadina, can get tons of pitches to hit.

Besides, one lousy fielder doesn't doom a team. Ted Williams practiced his batting stance in left field, but he played on 14 winning teams, five .600 teams and went to Game 7 of a World Series.

Because Dunn is a tape-measure slugger who might win the National League homer crown this year, and because he is liked by teammates and seen as a latter-day Frank Howard by fans, there's a tendency to demonize the debate around him.

However, it's a harder and more interesting problem than that. Dunn's value, or lack of it, fascinates the whole sport because so many threads in current analysis come together in his case. Much as we'd like a simple right answer, there probably isn't one. With hindsight, the Nats will probably look very right or very wrong.

The biggest risk, of course, is that, in the free agent game of musical chairs, they don't end up with a replacement for Dunn that they'd relish and end up looking in house next spring at Josh Willingham or Michael Morse. That doesn't upgrade defense significantly at first base while subtracting Dunn's offense entirely.

Even Dunn himself is almost as fascinated by the discussion as he is frustrated.

"What do I have to do [to stay here] that I haven't done?" Dunn said Tuesday. "I get it - the defense, the stat guys."

Then, he added later: "I'm sick of two-year contracts. It's the same every year [with mid-season trade rumors]. I think I've proved I deserve more than that."

In the case of the Nats and Dunn, the question is not about who deserves what. It's about analyzing how to measure baseball value. If the Nats end up next season with a 30-homer, 90-RBI first baseman with a special glove that makes the whole infield look better, they will probably be proved right, even if Dunn has another of his 40-100 seasons.

But if they don't, watch out. Sluggers who have 350 homers at the age of 30 and want to play for the Nats don't grow on trees.

In fact, there's only one in existence. Take a (last) good look.


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