The clock is ticking on the Nationals, who can negotiate exclusively with their four pending free agents - first baseman Adam Dunn, right-hander Miguel Batista and outfielders Willie Harris and Kevin Mench - until midnight tonight. After that, all four are free to work out a deal with any major league club.
Of course, Dunn remains the most pressing issue on general manager Mike Rizzo's agenda. He either gets a deal done with the slugger before midnight or risks losing a middle-of-the-lineup bat that has produced 76 homers, 208 RBIs and a .264 average in two seasons with the Nats. What Rizzo decides to do with Dunn will frame both the rest of his offseason machinations and determine how successful his winter is viewed.
Say what you will about Dunn's defense at first base, but it's hard to imagine what the Washington lineup would look like minus him threatening from the third or fourth spot. Guys that have hit 38 or more homers for eight straight years, and driven in 100 runs in seven of eight seasons don't come cheap. There's no replacement on the current roster, and there may not be one in the free agent market.
Dunn wants a four-year deal and the Nationals are wary of anything more than three years because he's 31 and has struck out 376 times as a National, his highest total in any two successive seasons in his 10-year career. There are a bunch of free agent first baseman in the mix this year - Carlos Pena, Adam LaRoche, Paul Konerko, Derek Lee, Aubrey Huff and Lance Berkman among them - and Dunn has produced enough offensively to justify an increase from the two-year, $20 million deal he signed just before spring training 2009.
Part of the players union's reasoning for approving the shortened window for exclusive negotiations with pending free agents from 15 to five days was so that the baseline market would be established early. In that scenario, guys like Dunn wouldn't wait until February for the landscape to settle out. Maybe that will happen, maybe it won't. Because this is the first year under the new rules, we really don't know.
It's entirely possible the Nats would let Dunn walk and focus their attentions to a better defender at first base - the 32-year-old Pena is reportedly on their radar. He's coming off a .196 season with Tampa Bay, but still managed to hit 28 homers and drive in 84 runs, and is a year removed from leading the American League with 39 homers. Last year, the former Gold Glove winner committed only six errors in 1,163 chances for a .995 fielding percentage; Dunn made 13 errors in 1,309 chances for a .990 fielding percentage in his first season as a fulltime first baseman. Last season was the first time in four years Pena did not hit 31 or more homers or drive in 100 or more runs. He just picked a bad time - his walk year - for a down season, and that may be reflected by the length and size of the contracts he is offered.
Because Dunn is a Type A free agent, the Nationals could offer him a one-year contract in arbitration and receive two compensatory picks in next June's amateur draft in the event he declines arbitration and signs with another team. If they don't offer him arbitration, regardless of who signs Dunn, the Nationals will get a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds. Pena is a Type B free agent, so the Nationals wouldn't have to relinquish a draft pick to sign him. Teams have until Nov. 23 to offer arbitration; players have until Nov. 30 to accept the offer.
The Nationals would like Batista to return, because he's a valuable and effective swingman who can fill multiple roles on a pitching staff. Harris, who may have to settle for a role as a pinch hitter instead of a versatile bench player moving forward, is further down on the priority list. If Mench returns to Washington, it will be via the same route he traveled last year - a minor league contract, with a possible spring training invite.