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Why Would the Nationals Extend Dunn?

Adam Dunn belongs in the American League. In fact, he should have played there his entire career. Yet every single one of his 5,417 plate appearances and 10,589.2 defensive innings have come in the National League. After spending the first seven and a half years of his major league career with the Reds, he went to the Diamondbacks in August 2008. Finally free to hit free agency after the season and catch on with a team that would keep him out of the field, he instead signed with the Nationals for two years and $20 million in January 2009. It had everyone from saberists to casual fans asking why.

When Adam Dunn hits baseballs, they travel a long way. Over the past three seasons he has the sixth highest ISO in the majors. His home runs during that time, 118, have averaged 409 feet. His slugging percentage, .532, is more than twice his batting average, .256, so each of his hits was worth more than a double. Most teams, I’m sure, would love to have that kind of power in their lineup. In the NL, though, it comes at the expense of his fielding.

The defensive aspect of Dunn’s game makes the Nationals’ stated desire to extend Dunn’s contract a mystery. His park adjusted wRAA last season, 35.5, ranked highest on the team, besting Ryan Zimmerman by 8.1 runs. The next closest player after that, Nick Johnson at 11.9 (just with the Nats), got traded mid-season. The only other National with a positive wRAA was Nyjer Morgan with 8.8. In other words, the team certainly appreciates his bat. Unfortunately, he cannot add his value to the lineup without playing the field.

Countless pixels have been used to describe Dunn’s defense. No adjective can describe it adequately. In fact, if you want to employ hyperbole in describing an inadequate defender, you can say he plays dunndefense (pronounced DUNN-duh-fense). Over the past three seasons only Brad Hawpe sports a worse outfield UZR, -82.1 to Dunn’s -66.9. Those two, along with Jermaine Dye, represent another world of horrible outfield defense. There’s nearly a 20-run difference between Dye and the fourth-worst outfielder.

In an attempt to limit Dunn’s exposure on defense they’ve moved him to first base. He’ll cause the least damage there, but he still handles the position poorly. He has played only 668 innings at first base over the past three years, yet still has the fourth worst UZR at the position, -16.2, and the worst UZR/150. It seems that no matter the position Dunn costs his team runs. Why, then, would a National League team want to sign him?

Two possible answers come to mind. The first doubles back to Dunn’s offensive prowess. A team like the Nats, with only three players who sported a positive wRAA last season, can’t afford to lose a hitter like Dunn, defense be damned. But if he’s costing the team runs on defense, can’t that offset his offensive numbers to an extent? While he does have the fourth most wRAA among outfielders over the past three years, his WAR ranks 37th. It appears, then, that yes, defense can offset offense, making the argument for keeping Dunn’s bat in the lineup a bit weaker.

The other answer involves a trade. GM Mike Rizzo has been charged with building a contender, and while Dunn might not fit into a potential NL East winning team perhaps he can help acquire someone who does. This contender does not figure to come this year, meaning Dunn could walk afterward. But if the Nats sign him to a two-year extension, perhaps they can trade him during or after the 2011 season to an AL team in exchange for a missing piece to their contention puzzle. It seems a longshot, and it probably doesn’t befit a team to sign someone with the intent of trading him for something useful. Given the situation, however, I wouldn’t rule it out.

We know what Adam Dunn adds to a team, but we also know what he takes away. Why, then, would a National League team, exposed to both, sign him? This isn’t the first time someone has asked this question, but with Rizzo actively discussing with the media his eagerness to extend Dunn it might be the most emphatic. The team either thinks his defensive detriment is overstated, or thinks it can turn him around in a year or two for more suitable pieces. I’m not sure either reason is enough justification to extend Dunn’s contract beyond the 2010 season.