Washington Nationals' Adam Dunn focuses on playing the field

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

VIERA, FLA. -- Adam Dunn can't really explain his aversion to becoming a designated hitter. He thought about it for a moment Tuesday, shrugged, and said, "I don't know." Stubbornness plays a part. He thinks playing in the field is fun, and he is not going to play in the American League no matter how often he hears he should.

Basically, Dunn knows what he wants and what he doesn't want, and that more than anything accounts for Dunn's dual aspirations this spring training: mastering first base and signing a contract extension with the Washington Nationals. His future for the moment remains uncertain, but not his present. This season, Dunn will focus on first base full-time for the first time in his career, a task he approaches with a touch of defiance.

"I could care less about what people say," Dunn said. "I know what I want to do. I know I don't want to go DH. I like playing the field. DH-ing is awesome during interleague, because it gives you a little break. But I couldn't do it full time. I won't do it full time. You can write that out right now."

So Dunn will spend the rest of his career as a first baseman. He hopes his foreseeable future will be spent as a National. While talks between Dunn and the Nationals have yet to progress -- "You're not missing nothing," he said Tuesday -- Dunn wants to sign a new deal before spring training ends.

Dunn is entering the second season of a two-year, $20 million deal. Both Dunn and General Manager Mike Rizzo first publicly expressed interest in a long-term extension in late January at a team luncheon. If he doesn't sign before spring training ends, he would wait until after the season to re-open discussions. Dunn would harbor no animosity if a deal is not complete by spring's conclusion, but he wants to avoid negotiations during the regular season.

"I don't want to sit here and put [any] timeline on it," Dunn said. "But I don't want to go into the season worrying about, 'Well, I better have a good game today or talks might go off.' I'd like to get it done. Hopefully it gets done before opening day. If it doesn't, we've got all offseason. I'm worried about this season. If it gets done, great. If it doesn't, I'm not going to sit there like I'm drawing an ultimatum, saying, 'Get it done or I'm done.' But I don't want it to linger on into the season."

He'll have enough to worry about playing first. In the late 1970s, Davey Johnson switched from the outfield to first base late in his career. Johnson, now a senior adviser to the Nationals, said it took him a year and a half before he could make the proper first steps without thinking, "reacting more by instinct than by rote," Johnson said.

Last year, Dunn made eight errors at first base, tied for ninth in the majors despite manning first for less than half the season. According to FanGraphs.com, Dunn's ultimate zone rating per 150 games at first base was -25.0, worst among first basemen with any considerable playing time.

Dunn improved his glove work as the season wore on, committing only three errors after Aug. 4. Even during that time span, range remained a most pressing issue. His zone rating -- the rate at which he fielded ground balls in first base territory -- was .779, which ranked 36th among the 39 first basemen who played at least 20 games.

Dunn is comfortable with all of that. Although Dunn played 67 games at first, it never felt normal, like his position. He had played outfield his whole career. "He was just trying to survive over there," Nationals instructor Tim Foli said. When the Nationals traded Nick Johnson last season and asked Dunn to replace him at first, Dunn played the position without learning it.

"I didn't even know what the first step was," Dunn said. "It's just totally, totally different."

Dunn arrived early this spring to take extra groundballs from Foli and infield coach Pat Listach, focusing mainly on his footwork and fielding grounders to his right. His natural attributes give him an advantage -- at 6 feet 6, Dunn provides an ideal target for infielders.

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