The Chicago White Sox will announce tomorrow that they have signed free agent Adam Dunn. The Washington Nationals’ first baseman has made it clear that he does not want to DH, but his signing with the Pale Hose indicates that he is open to the possibility. His signing leaves the Washington Nationals with a void at first base. The current speculation is that the Nationals will now step up their pursuit of Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Pena, or perhaps D-Back Adam LaRoche. Of course, it’s always possible that the Nats will decide to use Josh Willingham as their first baseman, or perhaps even Michael Morris — no matter how unlikely those two possibilities may now seem. The departure of Dunn brings an end to the Nationals’ front office debate on whether to keep Dunn because of his bat, or to let him walk because of his defensive liabilities. Chicago’s signing of Dunn is not a complete surprise. The White Sox have always been interested in the slugger, and the Nationals and Pale Hose were involved in intense discussions on Dunn prior to this season’s mid-summer trade deadline. Now — with Dunn walking — the Nationals will receive a supplementary first round pick in the first year player draft and Chicago’s 23rd overall pick in next year’s draft. Dunn, it is reliably reported, will sign a deal with Chicago far in excess of anything that he was offered with the Nationals: four years and $56 million. The Nats were reportedly only willing to offer him a three year contract. The signing of either Pena or LaRoche would be a step-up defensively for the Nationals, though Pena hit an anemic .196 for the Rays, while LaRoche (good around the bag, and with a quick glove), hit .261 — with 25 home runs.
Posts Tagged ‘Adam Dunn’
Ryan Zimmerman accounted for four of the Nats runs with four RBIs, righty Jason Marquis pitched a solid six innings and slugger Adam Dunn hit a long home run into the left field seats as the Washington Nationals beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-1 on Sunday. The win marked the first time that the Nats had won a road series since May, as the Anacostia Nine took two of three on the road against the Ahoys. “Start-by-start I feel like I’m getting to where I need to be,” Marquis sai following his outing. “Obviously early on I was hurting, and since the surgery I feel like Jason Marquis more day-by-day. The last four starts have been right where I want to be, although I’d like to go a little deeper into games, but I’ve just got to minimize my pitch count and that will happen.”
Fear And Trembling In San Diego: You don’t have to listen too closely to hear the concern in the voices of the radio announcers for the San Diego Padres. It was obvious in the bottom of the 9th inning on Sunday, with the Colorado Rockies about to sweep their three game series with the Friars — sending the Pads to their tenth loss in a row. “Well,” color analyst Jerry Coleman said, “the Padres have three outs to turn this thing around. You have to wonder.” The frustration of the broadcast team of “double X 1090” had been growing throughout the game, ever since the Padres had tied the Rockies in the 6th, only to see the Heltons climb back by scoring two in the top of the seventh. “It’s like we’re snake bit,” Coleman said. The Padres skid is their worst since May of 1994 and the worst for a first place team since the 1932 Pirates. “We’re in games,” Padres manger Bud Black explained after Sunday’s loss. “We’re just not generating the big hit, we’re not generating the offense to get us over the top. We’re just not executing the pitch, making the play that changes the course of a game.”
If San Diego doesn’t do something soon, they’re in danger of drawing comparisons with the 1969 Cubs, who were in first place in August, but then let the Mets catch them, or the 1964 Phillies — whose late-season collapse remains legion. It’s hard to determine what ails the Pads: there haven’t been any blow-outs during the skid, but the team seems incapable of winning the close ones. In many ways, the Sunday tilt against the Rockies was typical: the pitching was solid (but not solid enough) and the Padres hit (but not exactly when they need to), and the team took the early lead — but couldn’t hold it. With the exception of a 5-0 skunking at the hands of the Phillies back on August 29 and an 11-5 disaster against the Diamondbacks (that started the meltdown) the Friars have been in nearly every game.
The Padres’ problem is what we always thought it would be — hitting. The Friars have scored just 23 runs in their ten game skid and have found it nearly impossible to hit with runners in scoring position, plating one run for every five chances. Ryan Ludwick was supposed to help solve the team’s RBI production problems but, after a solid start in his new digs, he just hasn’t done it. The right fielder, who the Padres picked up in a three-way swap with the Cardinals and Indians at the trade deadline, is known for his nose-in-the-dirt play and ability to compete in close games, but he’s hit .194 over the losing streak — a fall-off in production as sudden as it is unexplained. And don’t look now, but young hurler Wade LeBlanc (a solid starter to go with the likes of Mat Latos, Clayton Richard, Jon Garland and Kevin Correia) is in a free-fall. In ten starts since mid-July, LeBlanc has seen his ERA fall from 3.30 to 4.15. Ugh.
There’s a bright side, of course. The Padres are still in first place, the team’s starters are still “the best in the West” (and maybe in the entire National League), Bud Black is one of the savviest managers in the majors — and it ain’t over until it’s over. But the Padres have to be worried: they face the surging McCoveys seven times over the next four weeks (including a four game set this coming weekend) and the Rockies seem to have their number, having won 11 of 15 in their last meetings. The Padres face Colorado in a three game set in Denver starting next Monday — having just been swept by them in San Diego. “We’ll be fine — trust me,” Padres’ second sacker David Eckstein said in the midst of this most recent skid. And, you know, maybe he’s right. But in the sprint to the poll, and with the Giants and Rockies in their rear view mirror, the Padres need to start hitting.
(above: Ryan Zimmerman, AP Photo/Keith Srakocic. Below: David Eckstein in San Diego AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn homered, and Jason Marquis pitched 5.2 solid innings to lead the Nationals to a 9-3 victory over the Florida Marlins in Miami on Monday night. The win was the third in a row for the Nationals — a “laugher” — who have energized their sudden surge by scoring 40 runs in the last five games. On Monday, the Zimmerman-Dunn combination accounted for seven of the nine runs, as Zimmerman hit his 25th and Dunn hit his 33rd home runs. Roger Bernadina and Michael Morse also continued their offensive assault, with both accounting for two hits. The sudden plate production stands in stark contrast to the Nats of just a week ago — when the Anacostia Nine had difficulty scoring against the Braves, Phillies and Cubs, and dropped seven of nine games.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains: It was a bad night for Florida baseball. The official attendance for the Nats-Marlins tilt was given as 18,326, but after a nearly three hour rain delay the Marlins were playing in front of hundreds — not thousands. In the seventh inning, a ballgirl snagged a ground foul along the first base line and trotted towards the seats to hand it to a fan: there was no one there. Then too, it’s an open debate whether anyone scrambled for Adam Dunn’s home run into the right field seats — no fan was even close. If you head to see the Marlins tonight, you might want to look under your seat. When the game finished at 1 a.m this morning, there were more people in Dupont Circle than at the Marlins game. The Marlins are counting on a new stadium to solve their attendance woes, but you have to wonder whether that’s really going to work. There’s a beautiful stadium in Toronto and a good, young team — and they don’t draw a lick . . .
Over in Tampa, where the Rays were taking on the Jays, precisely 11,968 patrons showed up at “The Trop” — an embarrassing non-anomaly for a team that now ranks 23rd in MLB attendance (just behind the last place Nats). The Nationals ranked as high as 19th in attendance this year, but the Rays have never been a notch over where they are right now. Bleacher Report’s J.C. De La Torre says there’s a reason for this: 70 percent of the fans live nearly an hour from the stadium (which is true) and Tampa has the second highest jobless rate in the state. And De La Torre notes that Cincinnati, San Diego and Texas also have attendance problems. They are all first place teams with 62 percent or less in capacity this season.
No matter what the issue, the Rays’ problems are long term and not likely to be resolved anytime soon — and they will have an impact on the franchise, which will see star left fielder Carl Crawford headed out of town (wouldn’t it be nice if he came to Washington, instead of New York) come October. “It was a big letdown,” Crawford said of the sparse crowd. “We came out all fired up and you see that, it’s really depressing.” The Rays desperately need a new stadium, but are locked in a head-to-head battle over whether the team will play in St. Petersburg (where they are now, officially, located) or Tampa — which could be the site of a new stadium in the waterfront area. The battle won’t be joined until after the season, which means that a new stadium (if there is one) won’t be started for at least another year. And no one has yet figured out how a new ballpark will be funded.
(above: Jason Marquis AP Photo/Wildredo Lee; below: Carl Crawford against the Red Sox in Tampa)
John Lannan has now made it all the way back from exile: in his fifth start after his return from Harrisburg (where he was sent “to work on his command”), Lannan mastered the heavy hitting St. Louis Cardinals — leading the Nationals to a 4-2 victory and a much-needed triumph in three games of a four game series. Lannan pitched deep into the contest, allowing eight hits and only one earned run to up his record to 4-1 since his return. “I want to be confident with each pitch,” Lannan said after the game. “I think I did a pretty good job of that, especially to lefties. I made smarter pitches. I was more careful with the sliders today. I felt comfortable with my changeup, throwing the ball in and my curveball felt pretty good.” Michael Morse provided the lumber, going 2-4 and notching his 10th home run and Adam Dunn was 2-3.Â But Lannan struck first, doubling into left field in the second inning off of Cardinals’ starter Adam Wainwright, plating the first two runs of the game.
Bad Blood? Jim Riggleman benched Nyjer Morgan on Sunday, the result of Morgan’s purposeful bump of Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson at home plate on Saturday night. Riggleman apologized to Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa for the incident and called Morgan’s actions “uncharacteristic” but “inexcusable.” Anyone who saw Morgan during Saturday night’s game should not have been surprised — after being bumped from the leadoff to the second to the eighth spot in the batting order, Morgan spent most of the 6th, 7th and 8th innings talking to himself, apparently in disagreement over Riggleman’s decision. Riggleman admitted that Morgan was angered by what he viewed as a demotion. “It was building up all day,” Riggleman said. “I think he thought I was wearing that equipment at home plate.” Morgan denied that he was aiming his anger at Anderson. “It definitely wasn’t intentional,” Morgan said. “. . . It is not my style to play dirty. I don’t play that.”
But that’s apparently not the way the Cardinals viewed the incident: while the Riggleman telephone call to LaRussa should have buried the incident, it clearly didn’t. The Morgan incident rankled the Cardinals, as seen when Drew Storen pitched the last of the eighth inning on Sunday, and lost control of a fastball — which sailed behind Matt Holliday. Cards’ manager LaRussa was immediately out of the dugout: “We were told before the game that [there would be] no funny business because of the cheap shot that Morgan did,” La Russa said. “And here’s a guy [Holliday] that hits a single and a double and they throw the ball behind him. There was going to be no ifs, ands or buts. But in [the umpires’] opinion, the pitch got away [from Storen].” Riggleman denied that Storen was throwing at Holliday: “Clearly there was no intent,” Riggleman said. “It was a terrible pitch. It was 4-1. We certainly don’t want to be hitting anybody or get anybody on base and get a rally started. After what happened last night, you could see where this is coming from.”
Is there bad blood between the Nats and Cardinals, or between Riggleman and LaRussa? That seems very much in doubt. But the same is probably not true for the Nats’ skipper and Nyjer Morgan. Morgan’s irritation at Riggleman might represent some passing anger — and Morgan has had a tough week, having been accused of throwing a baseball at a fan in Philadelphia. All of this might be forgivable, but Morgan’s comment on Riggleman’s decision to bat him eighth in the line-up will probably stay with the Nationals’ manager. “I have to be able to handle what I am able to do,” Morgan told the press. “If (Riggleman) feels like this is what he needs to do, he can go ahead and do it.” Our bet is that Riggleman (and Rizzo) view these kinds of comments dimly. Which means that it’s a pretty good bet that Morgan will eventually (and inevitably) be headed out of town.
So here’s the question: how can the Washington Nationals — so toothless against an also-ran and struggling team like the Chicago Cubs — play so well against the St. Louis doom-machine Cardinals? It could be (of course) that the Nats simply play better against stiffer competition (a notion belied by their record against good teams), or it could be (as it seemed on Saturday night) that the team was just due. Whatever the reason, the Washington Nationals finally broke loose against the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday, plating fourteen runs on sixteen hits, to clobber the Cardinals, who seem suddenly mediocre against struggling teams. The difference on Saturday was Adam Dunn. The left handed swinging behemoth, mired in a month-long slump, provided the impetus for the Nats to break out of their doldrums: Dunn was 2-3 with five RBIs, hitting a towering fly in the 5th for his 32nd home run. “I hit the home run really good,” Dunn said after the win. “I just knew the ball was really high. At this park, you really never know.”
But Dunn was not the only one on fire on Saturday. Michael Morse also had a hot hand, going 4-4 and scoring two runs, while Adam Kennedy, Roger Bernadina, Ryan Zimmerman and Ivan Rodriguez had two hits each. Over the last two games, the Nationals (whose offense has been positively anemic through much of August) have scored 25 runs on 25 hits, a symmetry rarely equaled through the last five months. While the Nationals might seem to have little to play for (they are nearly 20 games out in the race for the N.L. East Division crown), the same cannot be said of the Cardinals — who need every win they can get to keep pace with the surging Cincinnati Reds, who retain a four game lead over the Cardinals in the N.L. Central. The Cardinals are now faced with a chilling end-of-August reality: unless they start playing better against teams like the Nationals, they will cap a very good season without a shot at the playoffs. For the final game of this four game series, the Nationals will send John Lannan against Albert Pujols & Company on Sunday at Nationals Park.
Scoring The Nationals: Each game — and every year — provides its own scoring rarities. Two occurred on Saturday night that I have never seen before, or scored before. While “keeping a book” is always a challenge, the application of little-known rules to in-game situations can be discomforting. When Ian Desmond was called out for running outside the baseline in the third inning (how often, really, do you see that?) MASN play-by-play host Bob Carpenter helped me along: “That’s scored 3u,” he said — first base putout, unassisted. But the play demanded an asterisk — an outside-the-tradition personal tic that I use to note a rarity (some scorers use an asterisk to denoted a stellar defensive play, I prefer an exclamation point). There was a second asterisk (it’s important to limit their use) that I used in Saturday’s game. It came in the 8th inning, when Nyjer Morgan was called out at home plate (or, more pertinently, behind it), after being touched by a Nationals’ player. Once again Carpenter helped: “That scored 2u,” he said.
The problem with using an asterisk is that it always demands an explanation: which I give in a sentence at the bottom of my score sheet. The July 9 Strasburg beauty against the Giants (6 innings, 3 hits, 1 ER), for instance, included this asterisk in the first inning: “Cain throws it into the ground.” The asterisk was enough for me to recall a memorable moment in the 2010 season — when Giants’ pitcher Matt Cain lost his grip on the ball, which led to Roger Bernadina scoring the Nationals’ first run from second base. The official scoring, I claim, provided only a limited (and even puzzling) explanation that doesn’t really tell the story: “E: Cain (1, pickoff).” There are some events, however, that drive me back to paging through the best best resource on scoring, Paul Dickson’s “The Joy of Keeping Score” (it ought to be called “The Agony of Keeping Score”) which includes one scorer’s “WW” notation — “wasn’t watching.” That happens.
Of course, and as Dickson himself will readily admit, there are some events that happen on the field that simply can’t be scored — though they are fascinating. For instance: I was mightily confused with an event in Philadelphia, when Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz was stopped by umpires from visiting the mound after heading into the clubhouse for a new glove. Why was he stopped and sent back behind the plate? Why, why, why, why, why? I didn’t get it, and the announcers seemed as puzzled — finally just dropping the subject. The puzzle was finally answered (after much thought) by a family member (here he is) who provided this explanation: “If the catcher goes into the clubhouse and then emerges from the dugout to go to the mound, it constitutes a visit,” he said. “The umpires told him — and he decided against it.” Fascinating — and correct. But it has to be remembered; it can’t be scored.
(above: Adam Dunn photo by AP/Susan Walsh; below: Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack used his scorecard to give signals)
Nats starter Jason Marquis appears to be all the way back from surgery to remove “foreign bodies” in his elbow, pitching masterfully in 7.1 innings against the Chicago Cubs at Nationals Park on Wednesday. But the New Yorker’s outing did not result in a win, as the Cubs victimized the Nationals’ bullpen and went on to register a win, 4-0. The victory sealed a Cubs’ sweep of the three game series. Marquis, who the Nationals signed as a free agent in the off season, received a standing ovation as he walked from the mound in the 8th. “I was attacking the strike zone,” Marquis said. “The more I’ve been throwing, I’m creating better habits and allowing myself to make those pitches in the bottom of the zone. I let my defense do the work, which I have done the last few years. It’s definitely exciting to be back.”
After successive games in which the bullpen shut down the Cubs, Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett pitched poorly — with Clippard yielding a double to Cubs rookie shortstop Starlin Castro, scoring Tyler Colvin from first base. That was all the Cubs would need. After the loss, Nationals skipper Jim Riggleman seemed to respond to rising complaints about the Nationals losing streak — and rising criticism of his decision making: “I’m certainly disappointed in our record,”Â Riggleman said after the game. “I know our guys are playing hard, they are giving effort. The intensity is there, the hurt is there. We are suffering. We’re getting beat. I don’t like getting beat. I’m sick of it. I know our players are. It’s a game of character. Our character is being tested. We have to pass that character test.”
The Wisdom Of Section 1-2-9: You know that fans are losing heart when they begin to give away their tickets. This is what’s happening in Section 129, as an entirely new cohort of “fans” showed up for the Zambrano game, including a New Yorker who was (I swear) the spitting image of actor Chazz Palminteri — the tough talking “Agent Kujan” of “The Usual Suspects.” He and his friend (a separated at birth twin for New York cop — and Kujan sidekick — Sgt. Jeff Rabin) elbowed their way into my row in the top of the 3rd inning, pushing aside the regulars. “Hey buddy, you’re in our seats,” the Kujan look-alike said. I shook my head. Kujan held out his tickets: “Oh yeah?” The tickets said he and his friend were actually in Section 130. “You’re over there.” He eyed me for a minute: “We’ll sit here.” Okay, fine. But I had an overwhelming urge to ask him whether he’d ever heard of Keyser Soze. I tried to remember the line, but couldn’t — and then, suddenly, it was there: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I thought about it for a minute, but let it go.
“Agent Kujan” ignored me, but then started chatting in the 5th — I was keeping score and he looked at my book. “Hey buddy, you’re really into this.” I nodded: “It’s my diversion.” He gave me a crooked smile. “What the hell’s that mean?” I thought for a moment. “A hobby.” This seemed to satisfy him, but in the 6th he began peppering me with questions. “So they got nothin’, I mean the Nats — they got nothin‘.” Well, I said, they’ve got Zimmerman. He nodded: “The third baseman, yeah — sure. But that’s it.” And Dunn, I added. “Yeah,” he said, “but outside of that, they got nothin’.” I shrugged: well, and they’ve got “the kid at shortstop” and “the new pitcher — Strasburg — and . . .” He didn’t like it: “Listen buddy, I’m tellin’ ya, they got nothin’. Believe me.” Half an inning later he took it up again. “If they’re so good, why ain’t they in first place?” Good point, actually. “They don’t have any pitching,” I said, nodding. His buddy leaned across Kujan, his eyebrows up. He wagged his finger. “First thing you said — first thing you said.”
Kujan tried again in the 7th. “Hey buddy,” he said. “Who’s that shortstop up in New York? You know — the good one.” You mean Derek Jeter, I responded. “No, no. The other one.” Verbil Kint? Dean Keaton? Kobayashi? “Jose Reyes,” I said. “Yeah, that the one. Now there’s a heck of a ballplayer.” His buddy nodded vigorously. “Too true. When you’re right, you’re right.” Ah, Mets fans. That explained everything. But Kujan was just getting started. “You know, the Cubs are going to have a new manager next year. Could be anyone.” I nodded, and mentioned that I heard that Joe Girardi or Joe Torre might be interested in the job. He was insulted, shaking his head — Palminteri like. “You kiddin’ me? No way. Let’s me tell you something buddy,” he said. “Joe Torre ain’t gonna take it. No way. He loves it out there in L.A. And who wouldn’t, that what I say. And Girardi? You think a guy’s gonna move outa New York to go to Chicago?” I guess you’re right, I said. His buddy chimed in: “When you’re right, you’re right. That’s what I always say. When you’re right, you’re right.” By the 8th inning, with the Cubs ahead by five, Kujan had had enough, elbowing past me. “Good talkin to ya,” he said.
And like that — poof. He was gone.”
Jim Riggleman & Company have a lot to think about over the next few months, not the least of which is how to improve the Nats sloppy defense — first in the majors in errors — and what to do with Adam Dunn. The two are closely related, particularly given the questions being raised about Dunn’s prowess at first base. Ben Goessling (in “The Goessling Game“), focused on Dunn’s defense in his latest blog, noting that the Nationals “have made no secret of the fact that Dunn’s defense is the main thing they’re still evaluating when deciding whether to give the 30-year-old a contract extension.” But Goesseling praises Dunn for making the successful switch to first base, implying that his defensive play has been one of the surprises of the year: “To Dunn’s credit, he’s improved markedly at first base this season, becoming a slightly below-average fielder instead of an anemic one,” Goessling writes.
Goessling isn’t the only one praising Dunn. Over at SI, Joe Sheehan provides a list of players who are among the worst defensive players in the game (Yuniesky Betancourt, Brad Hawpe, Hanley Ramirez, Andre Eithier and Ryan Braun), while noting that Dunn “has adapted well” to being moved from the outfield to first base “showing good hands if limited range.” Dunn’s successful shift is unusual, Sheehan writes: “It’s rare that a player can move to first base and increase his value, but Dunn has done so.” So if Goessling and Sheehan are impressed with Dunn — and if the big guy from Texas is ripping the cover off the ball (and he is) — what’s the problem? Well, the problem seems to be Friday night in Philadelphia, when Dunn’s lack of range hurt him in getting to a ball stroked down the right field line and where the big man’s size limited his stretch to snag a ball thrown by Ian Desmond. The Goessling-Sheehan notes on Dunn are now the subject of some attention on the web (as MLB Trade Rumors runs through the Nats’ first base options) and increased questions over the utility of “defensive stats.”
SoÂ . . . how concerned should the Nats be with Adam Dunn’s defense? Dunn has made seven errors in 116 games playing first for the Nats, a statistic that actually reflects the common judgment that Dunn is a below average first baseman. Derrick Lee has made six errors (in 106 games), while Joey Votto has just four in 112 games. Lee and Votto ought to be considered the class of the league (Lee is tall, agile with lots of range; Votto is young and tough with great leaping ability), but the best in baseball (at least according to this single, and admittedly limited, “errors and chances” measure) might well be Friars’ first sacker Adrian Gonzalez who seems to have everything — agility, range, height and experience. Gonzalez has just five errors in 118 games, and he’s there, day-in and day-out. Which is not to mention Albert Pujols (with just three errors), who has everything that Gonzalez has (but perhaps not as much agility), or James Loney (a Gonzalez without the range, it seems to me) — with an astonishingly nearly perfect three errors in 122 games.
So the critics are right: Adam Dunn is an average to below-average first baseman: he ranks below Derrick Lee, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez and James Loney, is on a par with Atlanta’s gimpy and aging Troy Glaus, but is a ton better than either Arizona’s Adam LaRoche (10 errors in 112 games) or Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard — whose defensive gaffes are legendary (11 errors in 101 games). The problem with all of this is that defensive stats don’t really tell us a lot, which is why Sabermetricians have struggled to come up with better ways of measuring defensive prowess. But, as Tim Marchman noted recently, the statistical models are controversial, contradictory, and often fly in the face of common sense. In truth, it’s nearly impossible to compare Dunn’s defense to Pujols’ or Loney’s or anyone elses, because only Dunn offers a glove to Ian Desmond — whose lack of experience regularly (viz. Friday night in Philly), makes Dunn look like Adam LaRoche (whose own shortstop, Stephen Drew, throws baseballs as naturally as the rest of us eat chicken).
That’s not to say that fans of Adam Dunn should ignore his defensive woes, or refuse to admit them. It’s only to note that, when it comes to Dunn (and anyone else playing in the field), defensive stats will either only confirm what we already know (do we really need a raft of stats to tell us that Adam Dunn lacks range, experience and agility), or will stand as a confusing single data point in an overall picture (Colin Wyers over at Baseball Prospectus points this out, and pretty convincingly). Which leads us back to where we started — with this single question: do Adam Dunn’s offensive stats (his home run, OBP and RBI totals) compensate enough for his defensive woes to make Riggleman and Rizzo think about signing him for a few more years? The answer, as always, depends on the option — of whether Dunn’s prospective replacement will improve the Nats defense so markedly that they can live without the 40 or so home runs that the Texan will hit.
Ben Goessling says that the Nats are thinking along these lines, by considering Carlos Pena as a useful replacement for Dunn at first. Pena has the same kind of pop (39 home runs last year, 46 in 2007), and while he’s more experienced and more agile at first, it’s hard to argue that he’s actually better defensively (10 errors in 133 games in 2009). Perhaps more importantly, it’s hard to argue that Pena’s more resilent. The savvy Tampa first sacker sat out most of 2005 and nearly all of 2006 with injuries, is known to be plagued by an inexplicable June injury bug — and has been hit with broken fingers, pulled hamstrings and swollen foots. And Adam Dunn? The last time that Adam Dunn had any kind of injury at all (knock wood, right now, and knock it hard) was 2003. Over the course of the last seven seasons, Dunn has played in (count ’em) 161, 160, 160, 152, 158, 158 and 159 games. That’s the real stat, the one that matters. In comparison, in that same stretch, Carlos Pena played in 131, 142, 79, 18 (18!), 148, 139 and 135 games. Nearly a full season less. Maybe Pena is better at first. Maybe. But it’s hard to make an error when you’re sitting on the bench.
So if all of this is true, what’s all the hubbub about Adam Dunn? And why, now, are we suddenly hearing about Carlos Pena? The answer might be that the Nats really do want to get better defensively — and they think the way to do that is to replace their 40 homers a year guy with a player (like Pena) with a puzzling history of nagging injuries. Or maybe, just maybe, all of the complaints about Dunn’s fielding have nothing to do with his defense at all. After all, there seems to be a trend here, and it has more to do with the bottom line than booted balls — and should be perceptible to anyone who pays close attention: when the Washington Nationals’ front office starts talking about replacing Dunn’s below-average glove at first base, what they’re really talking about is replacing his big salary in the accountant’s book.
After all of this time, and despite their uneven press, you have to give this to the owners of the Washington Nationals: they’ve apparently realized that they’re going to have to pay for talent. This wasn’t always so obvious: in the early days after the franchise moved from Montreal to D.C., the Lerners were castigated for their penny-rubbing paperclip-counting ways, as it became gut-wrenchingly clear that the moguls that owned the Nats were as concerned with the bottom line as they were with the team’s place in the standings. Or more so. Articles slamming the Penny Pinchers reached a crescendo in mid-2009, corresponding to both the team’s status as baseball’s worst team and the franchise’s continued woeful performance at the gate.
But things have turned around for the real estate developing dynasty over the last twelve months, the result of two events that took place on exactly the same day — and nearly at the same moment — exactly twelve months apart. Just minutes before the signing deadline for the MLB first year player draft in 2009, and just minutes before the closing of the same signing period in 2010, the Lerners shelled out uber millions of dollars to the most-talked-about young players in major league history: first-round-first-pick Stephen Strasburg and first-round-first-pick outfielder Bryce Harper. We’ll start with Strasburg, who was signed for four years and $15.1 million, the largest contract ever given a player out of the draft. And yesterday, just before midnight, the Nats signed Bryce Harper to a five year deal worth $9.9 million. That’s a lot of money for two players who, prior to their signing, had never played a major league game. But the Lerners signed the checks — for an exact total of $25 million.
It’s hard to argue that the Lerners have learned that (as they would be the first to testify) good investments yield good returns. The investment in Strasburg, for instance, has started to pay for itself — with an estimated additional $5 million increase in revenue in 2010 ticket sales alone. Then too, the sale of Strasburg jerseys has ensured additional revenue; it has been the bestselling baseball jersey this summer and outpaced the sale of any Nats jersey from any player — ever. It’s not much of a guess to speculate that Strasburg will now have some competition, as Harper jerseys (when they arrive), will rival anything “the kid” has sold. So it’s no secret: putting fans in the seats and eyeballs in front of a MASN broadcast will make the Lerner family financially healthy (or, rather, more financially healthy) than they were when the bought the franchise from baseball five years ago.
But let’s not kid ourselves: despite all the talk among baseball owners about how the game is really “a public trust,” it’s much more of a business — with success measured not simply by a team’s place in the standings, but by a franchise’s financial health. Players win games, but profits (big profits) make signing good players possible. Finding the right balance between the two, between investments and returns, is the key to all of this, though it’s only sometimes mastered. It’s hard to wrestle this equation into submission for small and medium marketÂ baseball owners, though much less difficult in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. But it’s possible. The relationship between investments and returns has been mastered in Minnesota (as an example), but not in Pittsburgh, in San Diego, but not in Kansas City. And in Washington?
The D.C. market is the ninth largest in the country (that’s twice the size of Pittsburgh), with a potentially large television audience and a fan base that would be the envy of Minnesota, Pittsburgh or K.C. But in the first years of their tenure as owners, the Lerners acted as if the team was playing in Boise — they cut the payroll and trimmed away what they viewed as marginal baseball operations. If there was a plan here, it didn’t work: after the two year honeymoon with the team wore off, team attendance plummeted nearly at the same rate as team wins. In 2007, the Nats were paying out a mere $37 million in player salaries, an embarrassing amount of cash for what is essentially a large market team. But the Lerners must have gotten the message, which was hard to miss: Nats fans started voting with their feet. They stayed home. The result is that the team’s payroll level has increased in each of the last three years, to nearly $55 million in 2008, $60 million in 2009 and $66 million in 2010. The Harper signing is yet another indication that Mark Lerner is going to keep his promise: that “spending money is not gonna be our issue.” Great. Good. Now then, we need only one more piece of evidence . . .
Adam Dunn — the pride of Porter, Texas — is finally starting to get the attention he deserves. And it’s long overdue. The Nationals’ first baseman’s two home run, six RBI outing against the Trolleys in Los Angeles was the talk of baseball on Friday night. The “cavalcade of stars” on Baseball Tonight and the whoop-happy crew on MLBN’s late night offering (Plesac and Williams) spun up Dunn’s “Moon shots” in Dodger Stadum again and again. We can only hope the former Redleg and D-Back great is enjoying it. Ignored in the first round of the amateur draft, the victim of unfair criticism at the hands of a flap-mouthed former G.M., traded from team-to-team for younger unproven players, passed over for the 2010 All Star game and regularly relegated to second tier attention behind Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard (among others), Dunn is slowly laying claim to being one of the game’s elite players. Certainly Dunn’s skipper, Jim Riggleman thinks so.
In the aftermath of Friday’s derailing of the Dodgers in L.A., Riggleman dissected Dunn’s at-bats, shaking his head in wonder: “What Adam did out there today, that’s really some big stuff because [L.A. starter Clayton] Kershaw has been really tough on everybody, particularly tough on left-handers,” Riggleman said. “For Adam to do that against him a couple of times in that ballgame, you are not going to see that too often against Kershaw.” But it was MASN play-by-play guy Bob Carpenter who said it best. “If Adam Dunn appears hunched over it’s because he’s carrying the Washington Nationals on his back,” he said. “And he can do it.” Dunn, meanwhile, underplayed his accomplishment, focusing instead on Kershaw.”He is not one of my top pitchers to face. I can tell you that,” he said. “He is really good. Look at his numbers. He is really good. He is only going to get better. How old is he? Twelve, 13? He is only going to get better.” Dunn’s night was complemented by a solid outing from John Lannan and a tough defense, which included a diving catch in centerfield from recent call-up Justin Maxwell. The Nationals will face off against the Dodgers again tonight in L.A. before wrapping up the series on Sunday.
Adam Dunn may well be the most guileless player in a Nationals uniform. In the wake of his two home run, four RBIs onslaught of the Arizona Diamondbacks last night at Chase Field, Dunn stood in front of his locker answering reporters’ questions. What’s your secret? he was asked. He blinked and looked away, a small smile creasing the corners of his mouth, then faced the questioner. “I just try to get a good pitch to hit and put my bat on the ball,” he said. The gathering seemed somehow unsatisfied with his answer. “On that second home run,” he was asked, “you had a 1-2 count. Were you expecting a fastball? It was a fastball, right?” He reflected for a moment, trying to be helpful. “That second at bat? Yeah, I guess so. Let me think. I’m trying to remember. Yeah, it was a fastball, right? Yeah, I think it was.” And he waited for the follow-up question, but there was none. Another reporter tried a different tack. “So what’s the secret to your recent success?” he asked and added: “You seem to be really hitting the long ball lately.” Dunn nodded. “Well, I just try to get my pitch and then I try to get my bat on it. You know, just hit it hard.”
Dunn is not exactly an apostle of Crash Davis (giving “I’m-just-happy-to-help-the-team” canned answers to the same-old-questions), but that’s hardly a reason to think that the Nats’ big first baseman and batting order centerpiece is a can shy of a six pack. Rather, you get the impression that Dunn dismisses the pseudo-science of hitting, the kind of thing made famous by now discredited BT analyst and former Mets G.M. Steve Phillips. Phillips, and his ilk, are forever windging on about “opening your hips” and “making certain that you keep your head steady” and putting your bat head “through the hitting zone” and “drawing that perfect triangle stance” and blah, blah, blah. All the great hitters follow the Phillips’ mantra except of course for Babe Ruth (and counterless others), who could have cared less about hips and triangles. In fact, the Sultan of Swat damn near had his right foot planted firmly on his left in the box every time he came to the plate. Ruth was sometimes so anxious to hit the ball that he did a mini-Fred Astaire routine, dancing in the box before rearing back and turning himself into a corksrew. He could have cared less about style. Dunn is that way: see the ball, hit the ball. The simpler the better. He was once asked whether he had adjusted his “approach” to compensate for the way pitchers were throwing to him. He smiled: I’m not sure I have an approach to adjust, he said.
We should expect this kind of thing from Dunn who, unlike the rest of us, is more interested in playing baseball than in talking about it. If that is his belief, it’s well-founded. Youth baseball coaches live in fear that their ace 15-year-old pitcher will one day wake up in the 5th inning and realize what he’s doing. This “don’t think just throw” (or, in Dunn’s case, “just swing the bat”) philosophy makes a hell of a lot more sense than demanding that your stellar starter “paint the corners” or that your top drawer banger “open his hips.” (“Hey Babe, I think you should open your hips more.”) Since the passing of the trade deadline (and even before), Dunn is hitting the ball on the screws, launching mammoth blasts against careful opponents — and hence vaulting himself back into the home run lead in the National League. His prodigous hitting has not only produced needed wins (as it did last night in Arizona), it has made him the unacknowledged leader in the Nats’ clubhouse. Granted, Dunn’s mammoth blasts will make it difficult for Mike Rizzo & Company to part with him, either now or after the season, but that’s a problem we can live with. “I really, to be honest, never scratched out a lineup on a napkin without Dunn in there,” Jim Riggleman said on Wednesday night after the Nats victory. Right. So let’s keep it that way.