Defense over slugging? For the Nationals, it's a Dunn deal

Thursday, September 9, 2010

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 Albert Pujols, 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.

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