With at least four teams showing strong interest, Adam Dunn is quickly becoming a desirable commodity on the free-agent market. While Dunn isn’t as dynamic an all-around player as Carl Crawford, nor as distinguishable as former World Series champion and Edge look-alike Jayson Werth, Dunn is by far the best power hitter available in this free-agent market, as well as any in recent memory.
Let’s not even suggest that Dunn isn’t as accomplished as Werth or Crawford; he could very well be a fringe Hall of Famer if he can continue to draw walks and punish mistakes as he has the past 10 seasons. Yet, Dunn found minimal interest in his first free agency experience two years ago, when he posted similar numbers to last season before settling on a two-year pact with the Nationals just a week before pitchers and catchers reported in 2009. Furthermore, as suggested in the “Underappreciated Slugger” article on Jim Thome from this past season, Dunn was dealt from his long-time home in Cincinnati on August 11, 2008 to the Diamondbacks for Dallas Buck, Wilkin Castillo, and Micah Owings, who combined for 109 major-league plate appearances and 48 games pitched to the tune of a 5.35 ERA with the Reds. To say the return on Dunn was underwhelming would be an understatement, even when granting that it was a mid-August waiver trade.
The latest reports suggest that Dunn is seeking $15 million per season on a four-year contract. While a far cry from the two-year, $20 million deal he played on in the nation’s capital, and more than he’s made cumulatively in his career, this seems like a reasonable figure for a hitter with a career line of .250/.381/.521. Dunn’s 892 OPS ranked ninth in the National League last season, and if one glanced at those ahead of him on the leaderboard who had enough major-league service time accrued to qualify as “free agency eligible” or close to it, they’d see names like Albert Pujols ($14.6 million with a likely record shattering extension looming) and Matt Holliday ($17 million), as well as recent monster extension recipient Troy Tulowitzki (seven-year, $134 million).
So what is it that has kept Dunn’s value down thus far in his career? It seems as though it’s a fusing of new-school and old-school ideologies colluding to keep him from locking into a long-term, lucrative contract. The more traditional general managers seem to shy away from Dunn due to his low batting averages and high strikeout numbers, whereas the more sabermetric-savvy GMs appear to avoid Dunn because he’s an absolute disaster in the field, which mars his WARP, and as a result, his perceived overall value. It’s hard to deny that it’s true. Even without an ideal fielding metric to draw concrete evidence from, Dunn is an absolute butcher in the field and it hurts his monetary value.
Then again, part of the holdup is that Dunn has thus far been unwilling to accept that he’s better suited to be a designated hitter. Granted, he had little choice since he was drafted by a National League team and then was traded to another one. However, when he was a free agent the first time, there were whispers that he was unwilling to doff his fielding glove. Those whispers would seem to be trending towards faint murmurs now, with the Cubs the only NL club besides the Nationals who are said to be among his suitors. Only Dunn really knows if he’s willing to make that move, and he’s learned his lesson not to cut his market in half at this point should any other potential suitors emerge.
What exactly are teams getting in terms of a hitter with Dunn? Consider his comparables from BaseballReference.com: Reggie Jackson (age 24 season, and through age 30), Darryl Strawberry (age 25-29 seasons), Jose Canseco (age 30 season and through age 30), Harmon Killebrew (through age 30), Rocky Colavito (through age 30), Ralph Kiner (through age 30), Jim Thome (through age 30), and Barry Bonds (through age 30). Thus we see a smattering of very, very talented hitters to whom we can compare Dunn, which has to lead one to wonder if anyone has tried to convince Dunn of his potential value if he could just distance himself from his pratfalls in the field.
Dunn will be 31 years old on Opening Day 2011, and while stiff, big-bodied sluggers don’t typically age well (see Killebrew’s 1973-75 run), any team that can convince him to ditch the glove should come close to getting their money’s worth on a deal with Dunn. The only shame is that he wasn’t willing or, more accurately, able to make this move earlier in his career.