VIERA, Fla. -- Adam Dunn has spent the last nine years in the major leagues, during which time he has established himself as one of the game's most-consistent sluggers. Yet he believes he's never produced a full season up to full capability.
Aside from a 1 1/2-month stint with the Diamondbacks in 2008, he's never played for a winning team, so he could sign with any contender who would have him. Yet he'd rather stay with the Nationals.
He could move to the American League, serve out the rest of his days as a designated hitter and not worry about anything having to do with defense. Yet he'd rather stay in the National League and learn how to play first base.
In fact, if Dunn had his way, he and the Nats would agree to a long-term extension before the club breaks camp and heads north in four weeks.
"I hate doing contract stuff during the season," he said. "If it happens before Opening Day, great. If it doesn't ... I want to worry about baseball. I hate when the trade deadline comes around. I hate that part of it. I like just concentrating on baseball and talking baseball as opposed to [contract talks]. Hopefully something gets done before Opening Day. If not, then 162 games."
Dunn and the Nationals commenced preliminary talks about a long-term deal about a month ago. His current contract -- a two-year, $20 million deal -- is due to expire at the end of the season, and it's possible the Nats would look to trade him this summer if the talks don't progress.
The way both sides talk, though, it sure sounds like a deal will get done sooner or later.
"It's important to me, because he's one of my favorite players on the team," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I love the guy. There's not many 40-home run, 100-RBI guys running around out there. He fits in with this club. He's a very unique leader; he leads in a very quirky way, but leads nonetheless. He's always open to helping the younger players. We look at it this way: Several years down the road if he continues at the pace he’s at, we're going to be talking about Hall of Famer Adam Dunn."
Exaggeration? Not really. Having only turned 30 in November, Dunn has already clubbed 316 career home runs. If he maintains his current 40-homer pace for seven more seasons, he'll blast his 600th homer sometime in 2016, joining a club that for now includes only six members: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa.
Is that enough to guarantee enshrinement in Cooperstown? Barring any steroid allegations -- and to date Dunn hasn't been connected to any -- that should do it, especially if he plays out the rest of his career in the NL and doesn't resort to DH duties.
Again, if Dunn has his way, that will be the case. Despite persistent claims from scouts and other baseball observers that he'd be best-suited as a full-time offensive player in the AL, Dunn insists that's not his desire.
"I've been hearing that since I was 24, and I'm still in the National League somehow," he said. "That's people's opinion, and I don't really care what people think. If I wanted to play in the American League, I would have played in the American League. That's something that I'm not interested in doing."
With that in mind, Dunn has engaged in some serious defensive training this spring. Entrenched as an everyday first baseman for the first time in his life, he's spent countless hours learning the nuances of the position, getting a daily tutorial from coaches Tim Foli and Pat Listach.
Though he's started 162 of his 1,232 career big-league games at first base, Dunn has never entered a season knowing that's where he'd line up every day. He held his own there last year after moving in from left field following Nick Johnson's trade to Florida, but he admittedly made the switch on the fly and had only limited time to practice his footwork and throwing techniques at the new position.
Now that he knows he'll be there all season, Dunn is intent on making major improvements.
"I'm not going to sit there and say I'm going to be the best ever," he said. "But I won't be the worst, I can tell you that."
Dunn is equally intent on improving his production at the plate, which may come as a surprise to those who have known him as one of baseball's most-consistent offensive players. He's hit at least 38 homers, driven in at least 92 runs and drawn at least 100 walks each of the last six seasons.
But Dunn firmly believes he hasn't come close to realizing his full potential as a hitter.
"I know I can hit .300. I know I can," the career .249 hitter said. "I just look back, and I don't remember hitting being as difficult [in the minors] as it has been [in the majors]. Obviously, it's a credit to the pitchers. But it's also kind of a discredit to me, because I used to be a different player. I just know that I have a lot more in there. I haven't had a season where I've been consistent all season. I'm hoping this is the one. I'm doing everything I can to make it."
Of course, Dunn would trade in a .300 average for a pennant race, something he's never experienced in the big leagues. He never won more than 80 games during parts of eight seasons with the Reds. Upon joining the Diamondbacks in Aug. 2008, he saw his new club fall out of the NL West race and settle for an 82-80 finish. And he agonized last year through the Nationals' 103-loss train wreck.
Dunn has been criticized by a few over the years who say he lacks the desire to be the best, but make no mistake, he wants to win. Now.
"I don't know how to put it into words," he said. "Losing takes so much out of you. I never lost in my life, ever, until I got to the big leagues."
So why commit to the Nationals right now? Why not wait and see if this franchise actually turns itself around before signing an extension?
Dunn doesn't need to see physical evidence. He's seen what this club has done over the last 12 months in locking up Ryan Zimmerman for the long-term, drafting and signing Stephen Strasburg, trading for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett, signing Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Marquis, Matt Capps and Chien-Ming Wang.
He's convinced the Nationals are committed. Now he's ready to return the favor and commit to the Nationals.
"We're not far off," he said. "We weren't that far off last year. We made some really good acquisitions this year. I'm excited."