After the Nationals' 7-6 win over the Padres - a game they would've lost without Adam Dunn hitting three homers - the talk about Dunn's future inevitably heated up.
Byron Kerr wrote about the strong comments Ryan Zimmerman made arguing for Dunn to stay.
Dunn, as you know, is the subject of hot-and-heavy trade rumors this month, with his contract up after the year, the Nationals yet to sign him to an extension and several American League teams frothing at the mouth about Dunn as a DH.
Josh Willingham's name has come up plenty in rumors as well, the thinking being that he'd command a nice return before his final year of arbitration.
Zimmerman took the opposite view, wondering aloud why the Nationals would break up one of the best 3-4-5 combinations in the National League. I won't dive too deep into the Dunn/Willingham debate, other than to say this: What the Nationals have right now is pretty rare, and very cost-effective.
In weighted on-base average (wOBA), the Nationals have the second-, seventh- and ninth-best players in the National League. The only other team with two in the top 10 is the Cardinals, with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday.
And in wins above replacement player (WARP), which uses offensive and defensive metrics to measure how much value a player adds to his team, Zimmerman is fourth, Willingham is 10th and Dunn is 17th in the National League.
Think about that for a second: Willingham and Dunn, two players roundly devalued for their defense, are among the top 20 most valuable players in the National League according to a statistic that weighs defense in equal measure with offense. They're not stellar defenders, by any means, but they're both playing well enough not to negate their offensive contributions.
I get the fact that both players are approaching the downhill part of the production curve, age-wise, and both could regress defensively. But if the Nationals locked up Dunn for say, three years and extended Willingham by a couple years, they wouldn't be exposing themselves long enough to see either player take a major nosedive in production.
The interesting factor here is this: Because of each player's reputation as a limited defender, he's not likely to fetch a return on the open market in line with his production this year. The numbers we hear thrown around for Dunn are something in the neighborhood of three years and $40 million. But Dunn is having a better year than Prince Fielder, who's being talked about as the next $200 million man, and Ryan Howard, who just signed a $125 million deal in Philadelphia. Again, there are reasons why both players are valued more highly than Dunn. But the gulf isn't that wide, and if the Nationals can lock down a couple more years of this production at $13-$15 million a season, it seems like a good move.
Same goes for Willingham, who's likely to get something like $8 million in arbitration this year. His stats this season are further beyond his career averages than Dunn's are, but not so much that it's unreasonable to expect him to do this for another year or two. If he keeps playing like this, $8 million next year is a bargain.
The last thing I'll say is this: Zimmerman - whose lobbying last night was as strong as we'll ever hear from him - isn't locked up forever. His contract only runs for three more seasons after this one, at which point he'll hit free agency at the age of 29. If the Nationals tear down the middle of their order and spend two more years rebuilding it, what will Zimmerman think of that? It's impossible to predict what the landscape will look like in 2013, with Stephen Strasburg presumably having fully developed by then and Bryce Harper possibly in the mix. But the Nationals will need to start considering Zimmerman's future before 2013 - they'll probably need to re-open extension talks sometime in 2012. It's not a guarantee that Zimmerman stays forever.
So for the price of keeping Zimmerman happy - not to mention getting players who appear to be producing at relative bargain rates - it might be worth it for the Nationals to keep this group together. It appears Mike Rizzo, at the very least, is going to demand an exorbitant rate of return for either Dunn or Willingham, which probably means both players are staying. The decision the Nationals will have to make is if that's the best course of action anyway.