The Nationals are in the final week of the regular season, meaning they have just over a month to extend first baseman Adam Dunn’s contract before the slugger can file for free agency. And according to sources familiar with the team’s thinking, they’re likely to let him walk.
The team continues to view Dunn’s defense at first base as a sticking point, and the Nationals are reluctant to give him the four-year deal he prefers because of it. Dunn has said he wants to stay in Washington and would be open to a three-year deal, but the Nationals’ concerns about Dunn’s defense have led to mixed feelings in the front office about what he is worth.
“I can tell you the only person in the front office who wants to resign him is the owner,” said one scout for an opposing team who covers the Nationals regularly.
The slugging first baseman is a favorite of the Lerner family; principal owner Mark Lerner grew up watching Frank Howard hit moon shots in RFK Stadium, and has said he sees Dunn as the Nationals’ version of Howard. The team has even marketed Dunn that way, issuing Howard and Dunn bobbleheads last season that connect like two halves of a whole.
But the people making baseball decisions, like general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Jim Riggleman, see Dunn’s defense as the chief issue, according to sources familiar with the team’s thinking. The Nationals tried hard to trade Dunn at the July 31 trade deadline, one source said, but they couldn’t find a package they believed would bring back more than the two draft picks they’d get if Dunn left in free agency.
Dunn has improved defensively at first base this year, cutting down on his errors and trimming his Ultimate Zone Rating to 1.9 runs below average. But he hasn’t been nimble enough around first base to stop hard liners that better fielders might turn into outs, and according to the scout, Dunn’s defense is worse than statistics will quantify.
“He costs them half a run a game,” the scout said. “You’re involved in so many plays - pickoffs, scoops in the dirt, fielding plays - it’s worse than it looks on paper.”
One source said he expects Dunn will get the four-year deal he’s looking for on the open market, for something in the range of $60 million. If they don’t sign Dunn, it’s likely the Nationals would still offer Dunn arbitration, so they can get two draft picks as compensation if he signs with another team, but the prospects of them locking him up long-term appear to be unlikely.
Instead, sources believe, the Nationals will go after a more reliable defensive option at first base, though they understand no one on the market would be able to offer the same kind of power as Dunn, who is second in the National League with 37 home runs. The team, though, is hopeful they will recoup some of the production as middle infielders Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa continue to mature, and Michael Morse and Roger Bernadina improve in the outfield.
Team sources have also said the Nationals’ front office is high on Rays first baseman Carlos Pena, and Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth could be a possibility to give the Nationals another power bat, as well.