Ryan Zimmerman had an emphatic message for Mike Rizzo as the Nationals' general manager begins to navigate free agency in an attempt to improve his club this offseason: Re-sign Adam Dunn.
Speaking after the Nationals unveiled their new uniforms during an invitation-only event at the Stars and Stripes Club at Nationals Park on Wednesday night, Zimmerman said that any defensive shortcomings Dunn may possess are more than made up for by the slugging first baseman's steady production.
"We got to get Adam, I think. ... For some reason everyone thinks his defense cost us 27 losses a year or something like that, but just the presence that he has in this lineup, the presence he has in this clubhouse, the consistency that you get out of him - if you take him out of the middle of the lineup, it's going to be hard to replace him. It's going to do a lot (of harm) to our team," Zimmerman said.
The Nationals want to make sure they have a run-producer in the middle of their lineup, but they are at loggerheads with Dunn, who has hit 76 homers and driven in 208 runs during the two-year, $20 million deal he signed in January 2009. Dunn, who is testing free agency for the first time, wants a four-year contract for at least $60 million; the Nationals are hesitant to offer more than three years to the 31-year-old outfielder-turned-first baseman. There is one other option that could land Dunn in Washington in 2011: If the Nationals offer him arbitration and he accepts, taking a one-year deal at a price set by an impartial third party.
Next week, Rizzo will travel to baseball's general managers' meetings in Orlando, Fla., where executives usually begin laying the groundwork for trades and free agent signings that will unfold over the rest of the winter. Rizzo said Wednesday that he remains in contact with Dunn's representatives, but doesn't feel it's necessary for the Nationals to make a splash by signing - or in Dunn's case, re-signing - one of the marquee free agents.
"Certainly not," Rizzo said. "We're going to make prudent baseball decisions. If the big-name free agent is a prudent decision for us in '11 and long-term, then that's what we're going to do."
Dunn is hampered by the fact that there is a bevy of first base talent available in free agency - played like Paul Konerko, Carlos Pena, Lance Berkman and Adam LaRoche - could fill the Nats' need for a middle-of-the-lineup presence. But Zimmerman isn't sure any of the names being bandied about a potential replacements actually measure up to the man they would be replacing.
"The thing you know with Adam is he's going to hit close to 40 home runs and he's going to drive in close to 100 runs," Zimmerman said. "It's been like that for the last seven years. The hardest thing to find in baseball is a consistent player. And I think when you have one, and you have one here, it's kind of hard to believe you can't retain him. I mean, those are the people you go out and spend money in free agency for. That's why they make money - you know what you're going to get and it's not a surprise. It's hard to swallow."
Dunn hasn't responded to multiple requests for comment since he officially became a free agent at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. But Zimmerman said he and Dunn have spoken almost daily since the regular season ended, often about everything but baseball.
"(Dunn) wants to be here," Zimmerman said. "I think he's a little upset that stuff didn't get done (earlier), but that was not the team. You know how it is with that stuff. Now, you get to a point where he's so close to free agency. He's never been a free agent before, so obviously it makes sense for him business-wise and career-wise to at least go out there and see what's out there. That's not to say he won't come back here, he won't be here or he doesn't want to be here, but for him and his family, he's at least got to go out and entertain other offers and see what his real worth is."
But when Dunn's done his due diligence, Zimmerman wants him back in a Nationals uniform. And, in Zimmerman's opinion, the frequent criticism leveled at the 6-foot-6, 287-lb. Dunn for what naysayers say is subpar defense isn't as bad as his detractors contend.
"People don't understand that he's as big as people in the NFL and he moves around (well). ... He's pretty athletic," Zimmerman said of Dunn. "It's hard to look graceful when you're that big. But if he continues to work, like I know he will - believe me, he doesn't want to make those plays like anyone else. He's embarrassed for himself, too - that's why he works hard and wants to become adequate at first base. He has a lot of pride."
Zimmerman said there's a double-standard involved, when Dunn does his part and produces offensively amidst condemnation of his defense and other first basemen with similar offensive numbers aren't held to the same benchmark - especially when 2010 was Dunn's first season as a fulltime first baseman.
"Ryan Howard probably makes a lot more money than (Dunn). He's not winning Gold Gloves," Zimmerman said. "I mean, I love Ryan, he's a great player. But nobody ever says anything about his defense. ... There's maybe three or four guys in the big leagues that play good first base. I don't understand why Adam gets crushed on his defense. From the time he started playing defense in spring training to the time he ended the season, I can honestly say he's 10 times better."