Fixing the 2011 Seattle Mariners: Adam Dunn

So far we’ve looked at 2011 free agents Ted Lilly and Ramon Hernandez, present Mariner Michael Saunders, and trade candidate Colby Rasmus as possible solutions for the Mariners. Each of those falls into the category of potentially under-the-radar options for the team, as none has been enormously productive without any prohibitive information, be they age or unfulfilled potential.

The next candidate is vastly different. Adam Dunn figures to fit Safeco Field very well, and is still within the age typically considered a players prime. He’s about as productive a first baseman as there is in baseball, with several years of elite-level production.

The variable included when analyzing Dunn’s chances of becoming a Mariner, of course, is the size of his contract.

The 2011 Free Agent class at first base and designated hitter is a pretty deep one. Lance Berkman, Paul Konerko, Derrek Lee, Adam LaRoche, Russell Branyan, Carlos Pena , and David Ortiz, among lesser names.

While Dunn is likely the best and most marketable to prospective teams of the bunch, the depth of the class may ultimately drive his price down. However, chances are he’ll still receive one of the largest annual salaries this offseason, if not the longest contract.

The reality of Dunn is that while he’s unarguably the best hitter on the market, he’s an awful fielder at first base. His value is skewed considerably by his poor fielding in the outfield and first base throughout his career. Sure, in the National League he has to play the field, but obviously in Seattle that wouldn’t be a requirement, as he’d be able to DH.

Dunn’s 6.1 WAR in the past three seasons are far from inspiring. In fact, according to Fangraphs WAR-based values of players, Dunn has been worth $25.5 million in the past three years. In that time he’ll have made $33 million. The truth is however, that his value has been brought down considerably by his defense. He’s lost 30+ RAR in two of the past three seasons playing a combination of first base and both corner outfield positions. If we take out his defense, and add the -17.5 RAR set for DH value extrapolated over his last three seasons, he’s worth about 10 WAR, or over $40 million over the past three seasons.

Obviously Dunn would have to play a position in interleague play, but the difference in total value may be a run or two above replacement less, and still considerably higher than his National League value.

While Dunn’s defensive issues are easy to work around in the American League, his issues at the plate may be more damning. Dunn has a ton of power, and a pretty good eye at the plate, but he also swings and misses a lot. Dunn has missed 28.8 percent of the pitches he’s swung at in his career. So while Dunn’s walk rate has been at least 16 percent for the last five years, he’s also posted 30+ percent strikeout rates in each season he’s been in the bigs.

Obviously, Dunn generates significant bat speed with his massive frame, but that same frame doesn’t project well as Dunn enters his mid-30s. The last, or at least most memorable guy about Dunn’s size that we saw sign a contract that extended into their mid-30s was Richie Sexson.

Sexson began his career as a Mariner strongly, posting 7.5 WAR in his first two seasons with the Mariners, walking 163 times and posting 150 extra base hits. In the 2007 season it appeared his swing had slowed down, and he posted a career worst .194 ISO while sitting around the Mendoza line all while posting career low strikeout rates.

Sexson’s 2007 pitch type values, for pitches thrown to him, really display his inability to hit fastballs. He’d see the most fastballs he’d seen as a Mariner (64 percent of pitches thrown to him), but posted the first negative value for fastballs he’d had in his entire career. His -2.5 RAR on fastballs that season represented a marked decrease from his first two seasons with the Mariners, where he combined to post 26.4 RAR on fastballs. But the indication of slowed bat speed using that criteria didn’t just begin in 2007, but showed as he struggled with fastballs at an increasing rate in each season leading up to the ugly 2007 season, apart from 2005, when he played only 23 games.

Sexson was in his age 32 season in 2007, and played only one more year before leaving baseball permanently, or so it appears.

Dunn has been considerably better against fastballs over his career than Sexson was, but his 2009 season, where his RAR on fastballs dropped a full run per 100 pitches may be ominous.

It’s possible that Sexson’s struggles came as a result of Safeco Field’s unfriendliness to right-handed hitters. Though 12 of Sexson’s 21 home runs came in Safeco Field in 2007, he hit only 11 doubles in the Safe that season, and posted a .185/.279/.403 slash line in his home park that season.

Dunn being left-handed surely helps to calm concerns about his future talent regression and its translation into production.

It appears that Dunn is looking for a three-year contract in the range of $45 million. If he posted 10 WAR in the next three seasons he’d probably break even in terms of value, but concerns over his potential regression, and the first base/DH market may drive that price down.

Last year, in a pretty bare market for sluggers, the Giants offered Adam LaRoche a two year, $17.5 million deal (allegedly with several options at the end that didn’t favor LaRoche). LaRoche opted instead for a one-year, $6 million contract with a $7.5 million mutual option and that includes a $1.5 million buyout, so the total maximum value of the deal was $12 million over two years.

LaRoche had posted 37.9 RAR in the three seasons leading up to his free agency, compared to Dunn’s 91.8 RAR in the past three years. However, much of LaRoche’s money was earned in his return stint with the Braves, where he posted 1.9 WAR in only 244 plate appearances. LaRoche’s defense greatly contributed to his WAR, though his 15.3 RAR are far from pedestrian in such a short time.

Leading up to his free agency, Mark Teixeira posted 104.5 RAR and above average defense in three seasons. Teixeira was going into his age 29 season, and was signed by the Yankees. With the Yankees off the board, Dunn likely can’t find anything close to Teixeira’s  eight-year, $180 million contract.

A $10 million salary for a player that shouldn’t play defense seems about reasonable, and likely one that would be a net gain in terms of dollar value for the signing team. If Dunn is willing to DH, the chances of him being worth the approximately 2.3 WAR it would take to equal the annual value of the contract are pretty good. The real question becomes the length of the contract.

If he’s intent on receiving a three year contract or longer, he probably shouldn’t be in the Mariners’ plans, but if he’s willing to show that his power transcends a pitcher skewed park on a potentially playoff contending team for one season, he may be a reasonable fit at an eight figure salary.