Dunn’s defense still an issue for Nationals

The two plays Adam Dunn made - or didn’t make - in the Nationals’ 1-0 loss to the Phillies seem to be the ones everyone is talking about today. And with good reason; had Dunn gotten a better jump, or had better range, Raul Ibanez’s go-ahead double probably would have been a groundout to first. Ian Desmond’s throwing error, which bounced off the top of Dunn’s glove, didn’t cost the Nationals any runs. But that’s another play that could have been made.

The Nationals have made no secret of the fact that Dunn’s defense is the main thing they’re still evaluating when deciding whether to give the 30-year-old a contract extension. The price, which has been rumored to be around $40 million for three years, is affordable for the National League’s No. 2 home run hitter. Dunn wants to stay, and franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman has voiced his support for Dunn on several occasions. The question, as always, is that defense.

To Dunn’s credit, he’s improved markedly at first base this season, becoming a slightly below-average fielder instead of an anemic one. His UZR this season is 0.8 runs below average at first; it was 14.8 runs below average last year. Will he continue to improve defensively? Perhaps. Will the Nationals commit $40 million to find out? That’s another issue entirely.

Sources close to the team have said the Nationals would have interest in Rays first baseman Carlos Pena, who is a free agent after the season. The 32-year-old is having his worst season with the Rays, with a .774 OPS, but was at .893 last year and traditionally has an on-base percentage that’s more than 100 points above his batting average. What’s more, Pena is seen as a more reliable fielder; he’s got an -0.1 UZR this year and was at -4.6 last year, but had posted positive UZR numbers in four of the previous five seasons. He’s also a Scott Boras player, and the Nationals have had plenty of successful dealings with Boras lately.

Pena could be a natural replacement for Dunn if the Nationals let him walk, but general manager Mike Rizzo has said the team’s first preference is to resign Dunn. That issue, at this point, primarily resides on Dunn’s defense. There’s not much else for him to prove.