Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Who can fill Adam Dunn's large shoes for the Nationals? No one.
So sometime this afternoon, Dunn will stand before a bank of reporters, cameras and microphones on Chicago's South Side and don a White Sox jersey and cap for the first time. Back here in Washington, everyone will sit back and watch and wonder why that press conference is taking place at U.S. Cellular Field instead of Nationals Park.
Why? Because both Adam Dunn and the Washington Nationals stayed true to their word. Each side may have said all the right things publicly to suggest they wanted this marriage to continue, but privately each side also was adamant it would have to happen on their
Dunn insisted on testing the market to see if anyone was willing to give him a four-year deal. The Nationals wouldn't go past three. The White Sox would. Dunn deal.
Neither side can be vilified for sticking to their guns. The Nats didn't want to pay a 34-year-old Dunn $12 million to $14 million to keep misplaying grounders in 2014 and perhaps see his until-now-consistent offensive production diminish. Dunn, meanwhile, simply wanted to ensure as much job security as the market would provide and thus avoid going through the annual trade rumor grinder that annoyed him to no end each of the last three summers.
All along, though, the Nationals knew they needed a fail-safe, backup plan if Dunn indeed walked away. Team officials can say whatever they want about the importance (or lack thereof) of one player out of 25. Adam Dunn wasn't just one player. You don't just replace him with anyone.
How many players have hit more home runs than Adam Dunn in the last two seasons? Two: Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. How many players have played in more games over those seven seasons than Adam Dunn? One: Ichiro Suzuki. How many active players have hit 38 or more homers in seven consecutive seasons? One: Adam Dunn.
How do the Nationals go about replacing all that? They can't, at least not with one body. Oh, they'll probably wind up signing either Carlos Pena or Adam LaRoche, and either guy will be perfectly adequate as a first baseman and middle-of-the-order hitter. But do either of those guys make the Nationals a better team now or down the road than they would be with Dunn still batting cleanup? No. Do either of those guys put fannies in the seats at what figures to be an empty Nationals Park in 2011? No way.
You can debate whether or not PR should play a role in a GM's roster decisions. But you can't debate whether unpopular decisions like this one create a negative vibe in the stands and in the clubhouse. Neither one of those should be discounted.
Plenty of fans have been insisting they wouldn't renew their season tickets if the Nats didn't re-sign Dunn. How many will actually stick to their word and follow through? We'll see, though with no Dunn and no Stephen Strasburg for the majority of 2011, there sure doesn't figure to be a lot of buzz on South Capitol Street.
And there doesn't figure to be a ton of optimism inside the home clubhouse among players who absolutely adored Dunn but more importantly want to feel like this organization is moving closer to realizing actual success.
Ryan Zimmerman is signed through 2013. He may say he wants to spend the rest of his career here, but you better believe he's not going to commit any more years to this franchise until it gives him legitimate evidence of on-field success by the time he's completed his eighth full season in the big leagues.
And what of other top-tier free agents who pique the Nationals' interest? Are they going to be more likely or less likely to want to come to Washington after watching this franchise let its cleanup hitter walk away? The second-tier players who signed last winter (Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Marquis, Matt Capps) all said they became sold on the Nats after seeing the organization make significant financial commitments to other players like Zimmerman and Strasburg.
Is swapping Adam Dunn for Carlos Pena going to convince Cliff Lee to spurn the Yankees and Rangers and come to D.C. instead?
For years now, we've heard about the Nationals' plan for building a championship-caliber franchise. Only six months ago, team executives didn't hesitate to suggest the plan could come to fruition in 2011, with a rotation anchored by Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann and a lineup built around Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Josh Willingham and Dunn. How's next year looking right about now?
Obviously, the Nats can't be blamed for assuming Strasburg's elbow would still be intact on Opening Day 2011. But they can be blamed if they didn't think they needed to bolster the roster they had already assembled with more key pieces. Instead, they've now removed one really big piece to the puzzle.
Sure, they can say two draft picks will help the organization in the long run, and they'll have more financial "flexibility" with Dunn off the books. Draft picks are no sure thing. Remember Alfonso Soriano leaving the Nats for a better deal with the Cubs? The Nats got two draft picks as compensation, which turned into Josh Smoker and Jordan Zimmermann. Smoker has been a bust. Zimmermann is finally poised to realize his potential four years later.
At what point are the Nationals finally going to commit to one group of players and say: "This is the team we're going to try to win with?" At what point are they going to retain the players they already have instead of trying to replace them with younger, cheaper alternatives?
Perhaps Mike Rizzo has looked at this group and decided it's not going to cut it. While the youngest guys on the roster (Desmond, Espinosa, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Drew Storen, Wilson Ramos, eventually Bryce Harper) may be the guys to build around, the semi-veterans in the current clubhouse (Dunn, Willingham, John Lannan) aren't. Stuck in the middle of it all is Zimmerman, who surely would be a vital piece of a championship club but can't be counted on to stick around beyond 2013 at this point.
If that's the case, the Nationals need to come out and publicly declare that this team isn't ready to win yet. They weren't afraid to admit that in 2007, 2008, 2009 or 2010. If it's what they truly believe, they need to be willing to admit it now.
Of course, an admission like that would turn even more fans away from an already frustrated base that has been pretty doggone patient for six years now but has just about had enough. They'll come back if this team wins. But until it does, they're happy to spend their hard-earned dollars elsewhere.
Would re-signing Adam Dunn have changed all that and suddenly turned the Nationals into contenders overnight? No. There are still plenty of other holes on this roster.
But that's the point. There are already several holes that need to be filled, both for 2011 and beyond. Now they've created another hole by letting Dunn walk, making the challenge of building a real winner all the more difficult.
Perhaps Rizzo can fill that hole and the others by the time pitchers and catchers convene in Viera in 2 1/2 months. Perhaps the 2011 Nationals will prove to be a better ballclub than the 2010 Nationals and position themselves to really make a move in 2012.
But it's an awfully big challenge staring Rizzo in the face right now. It already was a big challenge with Dunn coming back. It's a gargantuan challenge now with the big guy bashing homers on the South Side.