Adam Dunn's contract status is the biggest decision heading into off-season for Mike Rizzo and the Washington Nationals. (Photo by C.Nichols/Nats News Network)

Let's get one thing straight shall we fair readers?

Whether or not the Washington Nationals re-sign Adam Dunn has almost nothing to do with his defensive ability, contrary to what anyone at The Washington Post -- whether it's Thomas Boswell, Adam Kilgore, or this guy -- might have to say about Dunn's iron glove.

It's all about the money.

More precisely, it's about the money and years on the contract.

I'm certainly not knocking the guys at the Post.  Bless the mainstream guys, they're buying what the team is selling right now about their "defensive philosophy" and distributing that message to the masses.  The team needs to gain a sympathetic ear with those fans when they fail to re-sign Dunn when he hits the free agent market, accepting a four-year deal from the White Sox or Yankees.

And it's a lot easier to convince those fans that the player has a fatal flaw, essentially blaming the player for his shortcomings.

But it ain't the truth.

Dunn's camp -- rightfully so -- sees this as his last big payday.  They know that several teams lust after Dunn's powerful left-handed bat, and will pay him to put his glove away. They also know, as well as the baseball scholars, that Dunn's career will follow one of two paths the next couple of years. 

Either Dunn continues to slug homers and drive in runs at a rate so prodigious he'll be mentioned as one of the top three or four power hitters of his generation, or he'll fall off the map so fast your head will spin.

I wrote about this back in July when Dunn's name was prominently on the trading block, and now watching the big guy struggle for the second straight season during the dog days, the debate becomes even more focused.

Dunn's supporters will tell you he's hit 35-plus home runs in each of the last seven years and could post his highest batting average of his career this season.  Dunn's detractors will tell you his homers, walks and OBP have all dropped the last three seasons and he's disappeared two August/Septembers in a row.

Both are correct.  It's Mike Rizzo's job to figure out which trend will continue.

If Rizzo is confident that Dunn will follow the career path of Jim Thome, blasting 35-plus homers for the next four years, by all means he should lock up the slugger to provide a middle-of-the-order presence to take pressure off Ryan Zimmerman (signed only through 2013 himself) and Bryce Harper, once the prodigy makes his debut, probably in 2012.

However, if Rizzo sees the decline in yearly stats and consecutive late season slumps and envisions Richie Sexson or Mo Vaughn, then he should run -- not walk -- away from any long-term deal and wish Dunn vaya con dios.

It's true Dunn has been one of the game's biggest run producers in his career, and that descriptions of his defensive abilities range from "improving" to "one of the worst fielders in the game", depending on whom you wish to listen too.  But comments about his defense being the reason the Nats will or won't re-sign Dunn are a red herring.

Because the honest truth, regardless how clumsy Dunn mght look at times and how awkward he lunges after balls hit five feet to either side, is that first base defense really doesn't matter all that much.  The margin between the very best fielders at first and the very worst, with their offense factored in, is almost negligible in almost every single advanced metric.

Mike Rizzo knows this.

It's still not an easy decision.  Do the Nats invest in Dunn, knowing that hulking sluggers that walk a lot have a penchant for fading fast once they get past 30 years of age?  Or do they let him walk (no pun intended) and risk alienating a significant portion of the fan base that loves seeing Dunn pepper the bleachers above the Nats' bullpen?

Let me take that last question.  Sentimentality should play no part in Rizzo's decision to re-sign Dunn.  Taking the fans' opinion in this matter is frankly ridiculous, because Rizzo is damned if he do, and damned if he don't.

If Dunn re-signs and then tanks, everyone and their brother will scream that Rizzo wasted so much money on an aging player, handicapping the team to have any flexibility for roster changes because of an albatross contract.  If Dunn signs somewhere else and he tanks, Rizzo will have "gotten lucky".

Were it up to me, I would offer Dunn arbitration and once declined, wait him out to see if he gets his long-term deal, or has to settle for something shorter like the last time he was a free agent -- which is how he landed in our laps to begin with. 

If he finds a better deal, I'd happily take the two draft picks as compensation, then invest the money I would have spent on Dunn on two younger, more athletic players either via free agency or trade.  But it's not my decision.

No, it's not an easy decision for Mike Rizzo, deciding on whether to re-sign an aging fan favorite.  But please understand it's not about any shift in philosophy about team defense.

Like almost everything else in baseball, it's all about the money.

6 comments

  1. Wooden U. Lykteneau // September 17, 2010 at 1:23 PM  

    I can live with alienating the least knowledgeable (but most vocal) segment of the Nats fan base, a.k.a. "The Lerners Are Cheap"

  2. Dave Nichols // September 17, 2010 at 1:43 PM  

    Wooden: It really seems like all this talk about defense is really being aimed right at them, doesn't it?

  3. Wooden U. Lykteneau // September 17, 2010 at 1:53 PM  

    Perhaps, but I think they're the same crowd that think Dunn "ought to take fewer walks and swing the bat more," blissfully ignorant that his approach is not "Moneyball" but Teddy Ballgame.

  4. Dave Nichols // September 17, 2010 at 2:36 PM  

    agreed.

  5. Anonymous // September 17, 2010 at 3:31 PM  

    I've probably seen every one of his homers this year. But unfortunately I've seen way too many of his strikeouts with men on base.

  6. JYBatteyPaulos // September 21, 2010 at 10:08 AM  

    I think this article is spot-on. Especially the comment "The team needs to gain a sympathetic ear with those fans when they fail to re-sign Dunn when he hits the free agent market, accepting a four-year deal from the White Sox or Yankees." It's really so obvious that this Machiavellian Front Office is trying to play these head games with the fans and that they are using the MASN commentators as their puppets and mouth pieces. We're not all of us idiots. We can figure out what they're doing. Their attitude towards us, more than the final decision, is what angers me most. I am a big fan of Adam Dunn but I also understand the economics. But the Front Office trying to dis the guy really gets to me (i.e., Ray Knight, FO spokesperson, criticizing Dunn's defense last night when it was Livo's error; or Riggs' veiled references "everybody on board pulling the same way, putting personal statistics behind them and milestones behind them and all that nonsense" - does he think we don't know who he's talking about? But we also know that Dunn doesn't even keep track of his own stats, so Riggs just sounded dumb). They're hoping to manipulate us so that we'll be happy with their "high-energy" young players & happy they didn't re-sign Dunn. But their mistake is in thinking that all of us can be so easily manipulated. I, for one, am not buying it (and I'm also not buying tickets next season if they keep up this garbage).