The gamble the Nationals are taking by letting Adam Dunn go

The warning flares that Adam Dunn wasn’t coming back to the Nationals were shot off months ago. Whether or not anyone wanted to see them is another matter. Fans pleaded with general manager Mike Rizzo to resign the slugging first baseman, through signs and chants at games, calls to sports-talk radio stations and comments on message boards. But the Nationals soldiered on, surely well aware of the PR ramifications of their course but equally confident in the veracity of their baseball decision.

The thought process in the front office went like this: The Nationals were interested in keeping Dunn off the free agent market and bringing him back to Washington, yes, but only at their price. It became evident by summer that their price wasn’t in the same realm as Dunn’s, but it probably should have been clear earlier than that, dating all the way back to the winter, when Rizzo said at a January luncheon that he wanted to extend Dunn’s contract and the big slugger stood up and led his own round of applause. But a contract didn’t get done by Opening Day, and while that certainly didn’t kill talks, it was a sign that there was hard soil to be tilled if the two sides were going to find a compromise.

Though Dunn has hit the third-most homers in baseball in the last two years, behind only Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, there were other concerns in the front office. The Nationals were leery of giving Dunn the four-year deal he wanted, concerned about his subpar defense and how his power and mobility could decline as he gets into his 30s. Dunn, stung by his previous go-rounds in free agency, wanted only to be appreciated and given the long-term security he felt he deserved.

He has that now; only, it comes to the tune of $56 million over four years from the Chicago White Sox, who might feature Dunn in the designated hitter role he openly despises. In that sense, neither Dunn nor the Nationals got exactly what they wanted. He wanted to stay in Washington, play first base and be compensated fairly; the Nationals wanted to keep Dunn while mitigating their risk with him in the future. But Dunn, at least, got the money he wanted, and now the Nationals have some hard decisions to make.

They enter next week’s Winter Meetings not only with a restless fan base, but with a franchise player who had openly campaigned for Dunn’s return and now is standing on the sidelines, impatiently tapping his foot as the team tries to figure out how to replace Dunn. Ryan Zimmerman’s contract runs through 2013, and though he wants to stay in Washington, he also makes no secret of the conditions under which that would occur: namely, that the team starts winning. He also knows what Dunn did for his performance in Washington, and is waiting to see what the Nationals do to fill the hole behind him in their lineup.

“I think I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t for (finding a good replacement),” Zimmerman said yesterday. “My two best seasons statistically were with the big guy behind me. Obviously it’s nice to have someone like that behind you. You’re not going to walk as much, and if they think about walking you, there’s another guy coming up.”

Will that guy be Carlos Pena? Team and industry sources have said the Nationals are strongly interested in the Rays first baseman, who has hit 67 homers the last two seasons and is perceived as being a better defender than Dunn but hit .196 last year. Pena would come for fewer dollars over less years than Dunn, and could slide out if the team still thinks prospect Chris Marrero can take over at first base. But he’s 33, and hasn’t been anywhere near as durable as Dunn.

And, to make matters worse, there’s a distinct possibility the Nationals get into a bidding war for Pena, or any other possible replacement for Dunn. If they can’t find a free agent, they could slide Josh Willingham or Michael Morse to first. But without some kind of high-profile addition to the lineup, they’ll be looking at a major hole in a lineup that already struggled last season, not to mention a frothing fanbase that’s about ready to turn.

The only way Rizzo can redeem the offseason at this point is probably to replace Dunn and add another bat, or the front-line pitcher that’s looking increasingly hard to get. But this, ultimately, isn’t about redeeming the offseason. It’s about fielding a 2011 squad that can get close to .500 and create optimism for 2012, when Stephen Strasburg should be back and Bryce Harper could be closing in on the majors.

The Nationals have resolved to improve their team with speed and defense, and surely watched how the San Francisco Giants won the World Series this fall. But they don’t have the pitching staff to pull that off completely, and probably won’t this year. Like it or not, this is still a team transitioning from Jim Bowden’s ideas (toolsy outfielders and burly sluggers) to Rizzo’s (athleticism, fundamentals and run prevention), and that takes time. The Nationals don’t have that luxury, though, not with a fanbase that has waited six years for a contender after going 34 years without a team at all.

They didn’t deem Dunn to be part of their future, at least not at the price he wanted. In letting him go, though, the Nationals set up a situation where every decision they make will be met with more fan scrutiny. The margin for error is smaller in the eyes of the fanbase, and the window to turn things around is shorter.

Even with Dunn, impatience was growing, and without him, the Nationals had better forge their new identity quick.