Defense Not Dunn

There are multiple reports that the Nats may be done with Dunn after this year. The rumors started up yet again with this Washington Post article from Tom Boswell, where he wrote

Adam Dunn is done in Washington… The Nats have decided. Not formally. Not finally. But for practical purposes, with 22 games left in the season, time has made the decision for everyone.

That’s not the only place that has mentioned it. Of course, ESPN rumors picked this up. Other blogs have been running with it as well, so it’s become the news of the day.

The theory is that basically the Nats are moving to a defense-first type situation. Regardless of what you think the middle infield will do, both Desmond and Espinosa have great range, arms and athleticism. The Nats believe they will be good infielders. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you how good Zimmerman is with the glove. Boswell writes:

When the Nats look at their lineup of the future, they see golden gloves or spectacular defensive range or powerful arms everywhere they look – and Dunn doesn’t fit that model

My problem with this statement isn’t the worries about the middle infield. Rather, their first baseman of the future at this point is likely to be Chris Marrero. Marrero spent much of the year proving he is still a great hitting prospect and deserves to advance to AAA next year. At 21 and 22 years old, he spent the season in AA, hitting .294/.350/.450 with 18 HR in 577 PAs. He struck out too many times, perhaps, and the power isn’t COMPLETELY developed, but for someone his age  in AA, he looked really good.

The issue, then is that he also spent the season proving he is a poor defensive first baseman. Gene Wang of the Washington Post noted in July that he “has a distance to go defensively” and that he won’t hit with the power of Dunn, so he’d better be a better defender. In other words, they guy they have to replace Dunn isn’t exactly a plus defender, and if he’s no better than Dunn but is 15 HRs worse, that certainly isn’t an upgrade.

Boswell also notes that including Dunn, there will be plenty of free agent first basemen this offseason, and that they could go after “a former gold glove first basemen coming off a poor year” and mentioned Carlos Pena and Derrick Lee. Let’s start with Lee.

Derrek Lee has had some pretty good seasons under his belt. Last year, he had an OPS+ of 145, showing he can still rake. The problem with him is he’s at 94 right now, was at 108 the year before last, and 112 in 2006. None of these are acceptable for a first baseman. As for his glove, his reputation may precede him, but his numbers aren’t spectacular. A career UZR/150 of 0.9 puts him squarely at average. Meanwhile, he’s 34 years old right now, and looks like his bat speed is going. I personally don’t have alot of confidence that he isn’t at the tail end of his career, and the Nats may not want to take a chance that they won’t get much production out of him.

As for Carlos Pena, he is a little more intriguing. His offensive numbers look a little like Dunn’s, perhaps with a little less power and a little lower AVG. This year he’s been awful, hitting .203/.330/.423, with 23 HRs. But from 2006-2009 he hit .248/.366/.524. Of those 6 seasons, 4 of them were more or less full seasons, and he hit 27 HRs (back in 2006) then hit 46, 31, and 39 HRs respectively from ’07-’09. At 32 years old, he is somewhat more likely to see a recovery, especially considering this year’s .224 BABIP is a career low. He may not hit 46 HRs again, but he has potential to have a comeback. As for his fielding, it’s not that special either. His career UZR/150 of -2.5 at first base is indicative of being just below average, and his last two years have been in the red.

Looking at these options, Lee seems like a real gamble to me. Pena may be a better bet to get someone cheaper than Dunn with similar abilities. But I am not sure that Pena’s much better of a fielder than Dunn, and Dunn’s fielding at first is improving to be better than his outfield fielding. His 1/2 of a season at first last year landed him with an UZR/150 of -30.3, but this year it’s sitting nicely at -2.3. Perhaps the small sample size isn’t enough to know for sure, but it seems that his fielding abilities at first base should be looked at differently that his outfield glove.

I am not sure that Dunn isn’t a better choice than either of these guys, and the only reasons to really avoid him would be the price and the potential to be saddled with a longer deal. If they could get one of these alternatives for just one year, or even Dunn for just one year, Marrero may be ready to play by 2011. Just don’t expect his glove to match the “new defensive philosophy.”

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