There’s a lot to like about Adam Dunn. The massive left-handed hitter has slugged 40 or more homers in five consecutive seasons and knocked in 100 or more runs four times during that stretch. His massive whiff totals (165 in 2008) and low batting averages (.236 last season; .247 career) are rendered irrelevant by his impressive .381 career on-base percentage. He’s 29, durable, and far more affordable this offseason than he might have been in previous years. Nats fans, still very much on the rebound after being left at the altar by Mark Teixeira, are openly enamored with their new crush.
It’s completely understandable that supporters of the D.C Nine are desperate for something to get excited about after a 59-102 disaster of a season in 2008. It seems like forever ago that Frank Robinson and his merry bunch of overachievers arrived from Montreal and got the District excited about baseball. The fairy tale didn’t have a happy ending - the Nats finished last in the National League East in that inaugural 2005 season with an 81-81 record - but it was fun while it lasted. And with the exception of a few memorable moments - most notably Ryan Zimmermann christening new Nationals Park with a walk-off homer - it’s been all downhill from there.
Dunn is reportedly seeking a deal in the neighborhood of four years and $56 million, and while signing him might temporarily appease a restless fan base, it would be a shortsighted move. The addition of one potent bat isn’t going to make the Nats instant contenders. This is a team with plenty of holes to fill, and Dunn can’t come close to filling them all. The way things are going, by the time they are filled, he’ll either be on his next contract or his next team. His presence alone won’t fill the seats in Nationals Park, either. Frustrated Nats fans might be eager to accept a quick fix right now, but what they’re really longing for is a competitive team to get behind and get excited about. While it’s true that Dunn would look good in a Nationals uniform, his mammoth home runs would surely be clanking off empty seats if the Nats were to sputter once again this summer.
So, how are Jim Bowden & Co. supposed to go about building the winner that D.C. baseball fans yearn for? The Tampa Bay Rays are glad you asked. While other teams duked it out for high-priced free agents, the small-market Rays focused on the draft and player development. They stockpiled young talent by making the most of the high picks (B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, David Price) they got as consolation prizes for finishing in the cellar. They unearthed a few late-round gems (James Shields, Andy Sonnanstine) and made some shrewd deals (Scott Kazmir, Dioner Navarro, J.P. Howell, Matt Garza). And after years of incremental progress, they conquered the American League in 2008 with a roster comprised of inexpensive - and mostly homegrown - young players.
No disrespect to Dunn, but what’s the point of dumping $50-plus million on a guy who’d be hitting his 40 homers for a 70-win team? The Nats have the Nos. 1 and 10 picks in the 2009 MLB draft, and it’s almost certain that they’ll use the top pick to take San Diego State righty Stephen Strasburg, the most highly touted college pitcher since Price, who came up huge for the Rays in the 2008 postseason. The Nats could make better use of the $14 million they’d be paying Dunn to start building for the future by locking up Strasburg, their second first-round pick and some other top amateur talent. And then doing it again next year, and the next, until they’re crafted the winner the District deserves.
The Nats don’t need a quick fix. They need to be patient and follow the Tampa Bay blueprint.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.