Nats only slightly better with Dunn

February, 12, 2009
Signing Adam Dunn makes the Nationals somewhat less awful for 2009 and 2010, but given their inability in the past three years to convert veteran players on expiring contracts -- Alfonso Soriano, Dmitri Young, Ronnie Belliard or even younger time bomb Chad Cordero -- into long-term assets, this doesn't push the franchise forward at all. It's possible the move will end up costing them more than money if either Lastings Milledge or Elijah Dukes loses playing time.

Dunn becomes the team's best offensive player, and makes them at least three wins better with his bat. If he plays first base -- the most obvious spot for him -- his defense shouldn't cost the team much, if anything, but in an outfield corner he's conservatively "worth" at least one win below average; that is, he costs them a win with his glove. He gives them a hitter who works the count very well, enough to drive a certain Cincinnati broadcaster out of his mind, and a power threat they simply didn't have before signing him. The Nationals' core offensive players -- Dukes, Milledge, Ryan Zimmerman, Cristian Guzman -- don't draw walks or hit for much power, and other than Guzman didn't hit for much average in 2008, either. So any addition to the team's offense is a welcome one.

The immediate problem with Dunn is playing time. He has to play every day, clearly; if he plays first, Nick Johnson (who's never healthy anyway) becomes superfluous, and Ron Belliard (assuming Anderson Hernandez is the every-day second baseman) becomes a mediocre utility player, since he can only play second or first but not short. These aren't serious obstacles, although it does highlight how foolish the Belliard contract extension was. If Dunn is asked to play the outfield, where the Nationals already have a serious surplus, there's a significant risk that either Dukes or Milledge, who both need playing time for developmental reasons, will be relegated to part-time or bench duty. Dunn, Dukes, and Milledge in the outfield puts the expensive and utterly useless Austin Kearns -- who has forgotten how to do anything good with a bat in his hands -- on the bench; I can't imagine they'd waive or demote him given his friendship with Dunn, now the highest-paid member of the team. Josh Willingham's back problems could push him to first base, making Johnson a candidate for release and again pushing Belliard to roster purgatory.

Developmental concerns aside, the big question for the Nationals is this: Why? Dunn won't be around long enough to be part of the first winning Nationals team. Even if Dunn has one of his best years, the Nationals are still the favorite to finish last in the NL East and unlikely to finish above fourth. As mentioned above, they have done a terrible job of using the trade market to restock their farm system -- a route that Oakland, Texas, and Cleveland have recently used to vault their systems into the top five in the game -- and the tepid market for Dunn this winter doesn't bode well for his trade value. Dunn didn't net a draft pick for Arizona, so there's no reason to assume the Nats will get a pick or two for him after 2010.

Dunn's contract becomes $20 million for a few meaningless wins over the next two years. Moves like that don't usually push a franchise backward, but they don't push it forward, either.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this blog entry listed Emilio Bonifacio as a member of the Nationals. He was traded to Florida in November as part of a multiplayer deal that sent Josh Willingham to Washington. The text has been corrected.

Keith Law

ESPN Senior Writer


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