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The Carlos Pena Solution

As September steams by and the clock on the 2010 season ticks away for the Washington Nationals, the organization will finally be forced to make some important decisions. Most notably, the Nationals will be left to negotiate with first-baseman Adam Dunn on the open market as the slugger seams all but destined to enter free-agency. Faced with an open opportunity to negotiate and resign Dunn since training camp, the Nationals have let this one come down to the final hour and seem to be content with letting the Big Donkey walk away.

Dunn has hit a career high .268 this season while launching 36 homers and driving in 91 runs in 137 games. Entering the Jul. 31st trade deadline the 30-year-old slugger was the hottest commodity in baseball attracting trade interest from just about every contending team, however as the trade-deadline passed and Dunn remained a National, it seemed all but an assurance that the lefty would sign an extension. But as the season has progressed he may have begun to show his age, his second half batting average has dipped to .232 and his power began to dip as well.

His second-half decline, combined with his career low OBP have lead many to question how much longer a player his build can positively contribute on an MLB roster. While Dunn’s batting average is just hovering over his previous career high, he has posted career lows in BB% and K% indicating that his best asset, his plate patience, may be fading too. To compound this problem, the lefty slugger is looking for a four-year contract from whoever he signs with this fall, quite the investment for a player that may significantly drop off the table in just a year or two.

Do the Nationals really want to take a multi-year risk on a player that may only earn his contract in the first year of the deal?

Most likely not.

In comes Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Pena. Pena, 32, is having a career worst year at the worst time possible, his contract season. He is batting just .206/.333/.432 in 122 games for one of the best teams in baseball this year, and despite his struggles, will be forced to face the open market in free-agency this winter without any recent numbers to back him up. As a Scott Boras client, Pena is expected to try and seek a one year deal to try and raise his value going into the winter of 2012. The Nationals have expressed interest in Pena, and knowing their positive relationship with Boras, it isn’t impossible to see these two structuring a one year deal this winter.

Pena is a career .242/.353/.493 hitter with 228 home runs in 1051 games. His career season came in 2007 when the lefty hit .282/.411/.626 for the Rays while slugging 46 home runs and driving in 121 RBI for the Rays. Pena posted a 6.2 WAR on the season making him one of the most valuable players in baseball. While in 2008-2009 he has dipped off he has still hit 31 and 39 homers respectively.

The bottom line comes down to this. Adam Dunn will likely be better than Carlos Pena in 2011, in fact I would be surprised if he wasn’t. The point is though, that while Dunn may outperform next season, his 2012, 2013, and 2014 seasons may end up being more painful than valuable for whatever team he signs with. Instead of enduring that drama, the Nats will be smart to go after Pena for a one year deal. They will still be able to insert a power hitting left handed bat into the lineup right behind Ryan Zimmerman, and will likely get improved defense around the bag.

It will be tough to see Adam Dunn walk out the door without a Nationals contract in his pocket, it will be a wiser investment to keep lineup and roster spots open entering 2012. A year that is quickly beginning to look like the Year of the National.

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