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

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; 11:55 PM

Adam Dunn is done in Washington.

All season, the Nationals have had an internal debate over a classic question of baseball theory: Do the synergies a 40-homer cleanup hitter brings to a lineup outweigh the damage done to a defense by a below-average first baseman with little range?

The Nats have decided. Not formally. Not finally. But for practical purposes, with 22 games left in the season, time has made the decision for everyone.

In a glutted market for free agent first basemen this winter, led by Paul Konerko and Dunn, the Nats can assume a former Gold Glove first baseman coming off a poor year will probably be available for less than Dunn's current two-year, $20 million deal - a player such as Carlos Pena or Derrek Lee.

So the Nats can avoid getting locked into the kind of four-year, $55 million deal Dunn might get elsewhere this winter. They won't even be obligated for the $40 million over three years that Dunn might still be willing to sign for this very minute. Money always matters.

However, the main reason the Nats haven't offered Dunn even a three-year deal is grounded in their current Theory of Baseball.

When the Nats look at their lineup of the future, they see golden gloves or spectacular defensive range or powerful arms everywhere they look - and Dunn doesn't fit that model.

The Nats' 3-2 loss Wednesday was a fine example of the case against Dunn. The Mets' winning run scored on a smash past Dunn that good first basemen snag and poor ones knock down. Dunn never touched it. But the Nats might have led, 3-2, if they had had better base running in the previous inning on a base hit - by Dunn.

The Nats are second worst in the majors in errors and on pace to allow 25 more unearned runs than the league average. If the Nats maximized their defense, could they save 25 to 40 runs a season?

To illustrate, would Pena, age 32, with 26 homers, 78 RBI, but a horrid .203 average for the Rays, help shortstop Ian Desmond and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (46 errors combined) cut their combined throwing errors by 15 to 20 in a season?

Then could Desmond play out his career as a rangy shortstop instead of a second baseman by default? Would such improved defense calm the nerves of future pitching staffs?

The answer: Nobody knows. Hitting and pitching have been parsed for 30 years. Analyzing defense is still largely alchemy. But, with four rookies arriving at once in Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos and Roger Bernadina, plus promising draft pick Bryce Harper's arm in right field, the Nats are tempted by the rare vision of good to excellent gloves at every position. Few teams ever have the personnel even to try it.

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.

"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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