What if ... the Nationals hadn’t let Adam Dunn walk?

Today, we welcome back “What if ...?” Wednesday, which took a hiatus while baseball conducted its Winter Meetings in Dallas (Trivia time: Did you know that the Winter Meetings are actually a gathering for baseball’s minor leagues that the majors eventually piggybacked on? Yep, lots of recent grads seeking employment in the bushes and a minor league trade show featuring everything from beer distribution systems and mascot costume makers to luggage distributors and Cal Ripken’s Power Shred jerky). In this feature, we rewind the game’s space-time continuum to determine what might have happened if a key point in Nationals history had gone a little differently. Granted, the Nats don’t have that much history in D.C., but “What if ...?” Wednesday has been a fun way to debate the merits of diamond decisions large and small.

This week’s is large - both literally and in the context of what it meant to the Nationals. Adam Dunn was a feared middle-of-the-lineup presence during his two years in Washington, easily former general manager Jim Bowden’s biggest free agent acquisition, and the 6-foot-6, 285-lb. slugger crushed 76 homers and drove in 208 runs while in a Nationals uniform. The Nationals allowed him to depart as a free agent last winter, and Dunn signed with the White Sox, cashing in even though it meant he’d primarily be a designated hitter, a position he swore he’d never man full-time. But what if the Nationals had worked out a deal with Dunn, keeping him in a curly W cap?

General manager Mike Rizzo had been under pressure, from both fans who appreciated Dunn’s prodigious power and teammates who worried that no one else could replace his numbers, to keep Dunn. But as the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline passed, and Dunn was still in D.C., his presence further polarized Rizzo from the fans and his team. At a November 2010 event to debut new uniform designs, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman publicly stumped for his friend and teammate.

“For some reason everyone thinks his defense cost us 27 losses a year or something like that, but just the presence that he has in this lineup, the presence he has in this clubhouse, the consistency that you get out of him - if you take him out of the middle of the lineup, it’s going to be hard to replace him. It’s going to do a lot (of harm) to our team,” Zimmerman said.

You know what happened from there. Dunn and the White Sox agreed to a four-year, $56 million contract, better than the two-year, $20 million pact he had to settle for with the Nationals the week before the team started spring training in 2009, but more than Rizzo and the Nationals were willing to pony up for the “Big Donkey.” (And just a little less than the $60 million Dunn was reportedly seeking.) Turns out the Nationals’ reticence was well-founded. Dunn didn’t take to DHing, slumped to a career-worst .159 average in 122 games and posted career lows with 11 home runs and 42 RBIs, his weakest totals since his 66-game rookie season in 2001. Talk about a power outage.

But what might have happened to the Nationals if they’d have kept Dunn in the middle of the order, made Zimmerman and other teammates happy, and gone the extra mile to placate restless fans who worried who would supply the team’s power?

First of all, there’s no way of knowing whether Dunn’s dropoff would have been so precipitous, and no one could have predicted such a dismal transition to the American League. But it’s doubtful whether those dismal stats would have kept Dunn in the D.C. lineup, whether his teammates would have rallied around their struggling slugger or whether fans would have been calling for Rizzo’s head. Mind you, it’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback a year later, but both Dunn and the Nationals would have been in an awkward arrangement. Whatever deal Rizzo would have signed Dunn to, it’s likely Dunn would have been untradeable, because of both the dollars involved and the lack of production.

If Dunn remains in Washington, taking the three-year, $35 million he was reportedly offered as 2010 wound down, there’s no reason for the Nationals to court another first baseman, since that’s the only place Dunn could realistically play. Dunn is unfairly harangued for his defense at first base - which certainly wasn’t Gold Glove-worthy but wasn’t as bad as some of the advanced metrics might suggest. But with Dunn still a Nat in this scenario, there’s no courting of two other longtime National League first basemen, Derrek Lee and Adam LaRoche, and no two-year, $16 million deal for LaRoche to replace some of Dunn’s offense and provide a defensive upgrade.

If LaRoche isn’t around to get hurt and miss most of 2011, the Nationals might not have found out that 29-year-old Michael Morse was capable of stepping in and having a career year - a .303 average, 31 home runs, 95 RBIs and Most Valuable Player votes from outside of D.C. You can certainly hypothesize that Morse would have been at the ready should Dunn have hit the skids, but going into the 2011 season, Morse was considered part of a left field platoon because the Nats brass wasn’t convinced he could hit right-handed pitching well enough to be a full-time player.

And if Dunn doesn’t depart for the Windy City, it’s quite likely the Nationals might not have had the money to shock the baseball world by doling out a seven-year, $126 million contract to free agent outfielder Jayson Werth. Granted, Werth’s subpar offense in the first year of the deal is troubling, but part of the reason the Nationals are now viewed as a player for any free agent out there is because Rizzo had the money to gamble with. Any deal signed by Dunn would have eaten up part of the Lerner family’s coffers and would have accelerated the team’s protestations that it’s difficult to absorb more than a couple of big-money contracts during the same time period. It’s also possible that if Dunn stays, the Nationals are forced to fill holes by dealing from some of the minor league depth Rizzo now covets and begrudgingly accepts will be the Nats’ best trade chips.

Instead, the minor leagues remain plentifully stocked, Morse has blossomed, Werth is hoping for a better sophomore season and LaRoche is entering his second year, hoping his surgically repaired left shoulder is well enough to allow him to put up decent enough numbers to yield another payday.

Whaddaya think?: Did the Nats make the right call on Dunn? Do you think he would have struggled as mightily in familiar surroundings as he did in Chicago last season? Leave your comments below, and feel free to offer suggestions for future “What if ...?” Wednesdays.

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