- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Washington Nationals concluded their offseason-long search for a left-handed power hitter on Wednesday, signing former Diamondbacks and Reds slugger Adam Dunn to a two-year, $20 million contract.

A club source confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the Nationals had signed Dunn, who has hit 40 home runs in each of the last four seasons. He had long been thought to be an option for the Nationals, who lost out to the Yankees in the race to sign first baseman Mark Teixeira and had openly pined for a lefty slugger since they ended the 2008 season with second fewest home runs (117) in the National League.

A news conference is expected Thursday. General manager Jim Bowden declined to comment.

“It’s an addition to our team that makes us better,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “People get excited, fans get excited. Adam definitely makes it a lot easier [to win].”

Zimmerman had struck up a friendship with Dunn over the last two seasons, and the Nationals’ franchise player said he did everything he could to get another cornerstone in the clubhouse.

He said he talked to Dunn about once every two weeks during the offseason and that the 29-year-old, whom Bowden drafted in 1998 with the Reds, told Zimmerman from the beginning that he wanted to play with Washington.

Aside from the force Dunn should bring to the Nationals’ lineup - he had 26 more homers, 39 more RBI and 72 more walks than any Washington player last season - Zimmerman sounded relieved at the addition of a veteran presence to the clubhouse.

“Baseball’s one of those sports where you have to do small things right. Sometimes last year, we didn’t do those things,” Zimmerman said. “We had so many of those so-called leaders that weren’t there. Nobody said anything. We have to learn that you can’t make same mistakes twice. We’ve got to be able to communicate better as a team, not so much call each other out, but to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get that [runner] over.’ That’s a lot easier to do with veteran guys.”

Neither Dunn nor his agent, Greg Genske, returned a message seeking comment.

However Dunn’s impact is measured, it won’t come cheaply - his $10 million average annual salary ties Alfonso Soriano for the largest salary in Nationals history. It also means that whether Dunn plays in the outfield or at first base, one of Washington’s three other highest-paid players (outfielder Austin Kearns, first baseman Nick Johnson or first baseman Dmitri Young) will start the season on the bench.

The news likely has the most direct effect on Johnson, who is already in Viera, Fla., trying to strengthen his right wrist after a torn tendon sheath ended his season last May. Johnson said he heard the news while driving home from a batting cage session with new hitting coach Rick Eckstein.

“It’s great,” Johnson said. “He’s a great player. He can add a lot to a lineup.”

Johnson’s name has come up periodically in trade rumors throughout the offseason, most often with the Oakland Athletics, but he said he hasn’t heard from agent Rex Gary that he might be leaving Washington.

“I’m just more worried about playing,” Johnson said. “It’s been a couple years since I’ve been able to get on the field consistently. I’ll just get some at-bats and let things happen.”

The Nationals, who offered Teixeira at least $180 million in December, had hinted for much of the offseason that Dunn was out of their price range. The Dodgers and Angels, among other teams, were also believed to be in pursuit of the left-hander, with some interpreting his reluctance toward the Nationals’ offer as a sign he was looking for a better deal elsewhere.

But when Bobby Abreu got a one-year deal from the Angels on Wednesday, it both eliminated one of Dunn’s potential suitors and signaled the free agent market is still tepid two days before pitchers and catchers start reporting to spring training.

Dunn made $13 million last season, but was not offered arbitration by the Diamondbacks, meaning he will not cost Washington any draft picks.

He isn’t without his drawbacks, both at the plate and in the field; Dunn is a limited defender, has never hit above .266 in a full season and has struck out 886 times in the last five years.

He also got into a brief spat with Blue Jays GM J.P. Riccardi last season after Riccardi questioned Dunn’s passion for the game on his radio show. But Kearns, who was Dunn’s teammate for four years in Cincinnati, said Dunn’s character has never been an issue.

“Obviously the guy doesn’t know him,” Kearns said. “You fail a lot in the game. If you don’t care, I doubt you’d be doing something where you fail as much as you do in baseball.”

The combination of his power and his ability to draw walks (his career on-base percentage is .381), however, made him the best option to boost the Nationals’ lineup before spring training.

“Other team knows what he can do. That helps me out,” Zimmerman said. “What helps even more is he can walk a lot. If teams pitch around me, they have to pitch to him. Otherwise you’ve got two people on and [Josh] Willingham or someone like that up. It makes the middle of our lineup have more of a presence.”

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