Here’s why it isn’t a Dunn deal yet

The winter meetings are less than one week away, and my current predictions for the big free agents are in line with the consensus: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Cliff Lee to the Yankees; Jayson Werth to the Red Sox; Carl Crawford to the Angels.

The Jeter negotiations have the potential to (needlessly) embarrass a lot of the people involved. Some observers find this wildly entertaining. I don’t. Verbal poking is a lousy spectator sport.

So let’s forget about Jeter for now, because, contrary to what you heard, he isn’t the most fascinating free-agent hitter in this marketplace. That distinction belongs to Adam Dunn — even though, as far as we know, he’s not receiving offers from the 212 area code.

Dunn has been described as a great teammate and one of the game’s most outgoing personalities. But he’s an awfully inscrutable free agent.

I can’t offer a guess as to which team is the front-runner to sign Dunn, because I don’t know that there is one.

Dunn, 31, looks like an ideal fit for the American League. He is a big, burly slugger for whom 40-homer seasons are routine. A reluctance to come out of the lineup for minor injuries is Dunn’s other calling card. Since 2004, he has played at least 158 games in all but one season.

“A lot of guys don’t go out there unless they feel 100 percent,” said Jerry Narron, who managed Dunn in Cincinnati. “He posts up every day.”

Dunn is a below-average defender at first base. He is more experienced (and probably less capable) in left field. But hitters of his ilk attain fame and fortune in the AL without needing a fielder’s glove.

There’s one problem with that: Publicly, he says he’s not interested.

On the subject of life as a designated hitter, Dunn told The Washington Post earlier this year, “I think everyone pretty much knows that’s something I don’t want to do at this point in time of my career.”

If that is truly how Dunn feels, then he offers less lineup versatility — and hence less value — to American League clubs.

If Dunn merely was in an anti-DH mood when he granted the interview, then he unwittingly ran afoul of a sacred tenet: When free agency beckons, thou shalt not rule out possibilities, for leverage comes from a vast skill set. 

Maybe Dunn needs to play first base in order to find true contentment at the ballpark. In that case, more power to him. But does he feel strongly enough that he would take millions less for the simple pleasure of wearing a glove every day? I doubt it.

Has Dunn softened his stance, to the point that 60, 70 or 80 games as a DH would be amenable? Has he received a single offer to be an every-day, 153-start first baseman, as he was for the Washington Nationals this year? His representatives at Legacy Sports Group declined to address those questions. So we wait.

Whether Dunn wants to hear it or not, the best suitors for him — at first base or designated hitter — are in the American League.

• Baltimore: The Orioles are desperate enough for star power that they might overpay for Dunn. They could promise him the first base job and turn Luke Scott into a full-time DH

• Chicago: Whether or not the White Sox re-sign Paul Konerko, they could benefit from Dunn’s left-handed presence. But if Captain Konerko returns, Dunn would need to be comfortable spending at least half of his games as a designated hitter.

• Oakland: The search for a new DH could intensify later this week, if the A’s non-tender Jack Cust. Had Dunn shown more enthusiasm about becoming a DH, this club would fit him perfectly. Oakland needs power and has a good defender at first (Deric Barton).

• Texas: It would be a good story (Dunn is from Texas), not to mention a terrific fit (Vladimir Guerrero is a free agent). The Rangers are in a position to accommodate Dunn’s wishes to play first base, since Mitch Moreland could be moved into the outfield rotation.

• Toronto: Dunn’s buddy J.P. Ricciardi is gone, so why not? The Jays are on their way to becoming a playoff team. Dunn would be a downgrade on defense at first base, after five years of Lyle Overbay. But the position is open, as long as Adam Lind remains at DH.

So, yes, there are happy scenarios that involve Dunn in the AL. But it’s hard to sign a star amid the uneasy truce that the manager won’t abuse his ability to write “DH” beside the new slugger’s name.

Whatever the effect on his market value, Dunn’s concerns are legitimate. Gary Sheffield and Pat Burrell are among the recent examples of players who simply couldn’t handle the DH role. Plus, Dunn has never played for an American League club. He would need to learn a different set of pitchers.

Dunn doesn’t have a reputation for clutch hitting, which is relevant in the DH discussion. In close and late situations, he owns a .233 career batting average, according to Baseball-Reference.com. With two out and runners in scoring position, he hits .214. If he had more time to scrutinize his crucial at-bats, would the numbers skew further?

“If I was an AL manager and my club signed him, I’d tell him, ‘You’ve got a chance to put up even better numbers as a DH,’ " said Narron, now the Milwaukee Brewers’ bench coach. “Some guys, like Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz, take right to it. With Dunner, we won’t know until he does it.”

If he does it.

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