White Sox want Dunn to play to strength

CHICAGO -- With two years of redemption in Washington now out of the way and a fat new contract with the Chicago White Sox, it appears to be a good time to be Adam Dunn.

Judging from the reaction at SoxFest last month, White Sox fans are giddy over Dunn's arrival, and those who make it their business to predict the season before it begins are putting the White Sox in the playoffs, a decision largely inspired by the big slugger's presence.

But Dunn hasn't always been warmly received or highly regarded. When the current No. 76 home run hitter of all time played with the Cincinnati Reds from 2001 to 2008, the concept that he could sell tickets or point his club toward the postseason wasn't a popular belief.

Dunn was productive offensively then, too, but it didn't stop some from wanting more. They found serious flaws in his game such as striking out too much or playing awful defense. Worst of all, his effort was put into question.

Some of it was ugly.

The ways Dunn was described early in his career: "[He] doesn't have passion to play the game"; "He leads the world in strikeouts"; "Overweight"; "No energy."

It was written that he could wind up being the all-time worst defensive first baseman in history and that the Reds teams he played on with Ken Griffey Jr. resembled rec-league softball squads with beer bellies.

Not all of Dunn's flaws have been eliminated. He still is a big guy who doesn't run much, still strikes out a lot and still is a work in progress with his glove. But the White Sox found him to be a good match and signed him to a four-year, $56 million contract essentially because they weren't looking for any of the stuff that was never his strength anyway.

It's hard to argue with Dunn's accomplishments, like his 354 career home runs, which are 11 behind new teammate Paul Konerko. If he averages just 30 home runs per season in his four years with the White Sox (his career average is 35.4 per season), he will approach the top 30 all time.

Dunn's penchant for run production is why he was brought to Chicago, along with the fact that he does it from the left side of the plate, he gets on base and he works deep into counts. For the most part, he is willing to let that part of his game do the talking.

Yes, he has fired back at some of his critics, but these days, with a new chapter ahead of him, he hopes he has done enough to be judged on what kind of a teammate he is.

"Yeah, it does [hurt]," Dunn said about past criticism, "but you'll never hear somebody who played me or was in the clubhouse with me say that stuff, so whatever people outside the clubhouse say, it means nothing to me."

Chief among Dunn's critics were two men who did not play with him. Former Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi and Reds veteran broadcaster Marty Brennaman each went public with what they saw lacking in Dunn.

Ricciardi delivered critical comments on his radio show before the 2008 trade deadline.

"Do you know the guy doesn't really like baseball that much?" Ricciardi said in response to a suggestion from a caller that a trade for Dunn might be what the Blue Jays' offense needed. "Do you know the guy doesn't have a passion to play the game that much? How much do you know about the player?

"There's a reason why you're attracted to some players, and there's a reason why you're not attracted to some players. I don't think you'd be very happy if we brought Adam Dunn here."

Brennaman's comments, made to The Advocate-Messenger of Danville, Ky., before the 2007 season, suggested that Dunn was nowhere close to reaching his potential.

"I am pretty close to giving up on Adam Dunn," Brennaman said. "I don't know if he is capable of changing his approach to the plate, based on what the count is, and can be happy with shortening his swing, hitting the ball the other way and showing a measure of discipline. I am at the point where I don't know if it can happen. He is a guy who drove in five runs in the month of September last year and didn't even get to 100 runs batted in."

In addition, the veteran broadcaster believed that Dunn's value only declined after the 2005 season, when the slugger hit 40 home runs with 101 RBIs and a .927 OPS. There was a slight dip in 2006, but Dunn still hit 40 more home runs with 92 RBIs and an .855 OPS.

"He is going to make $10 million [in 2007]," Brennaman said. "I get tired of people saying he hits 40 home runs and drives in 100 runs. Wonderful. This is a guy who should hit 50-plus home runs and should drive in 130 runs or more every single year. And he can't do it because he leads the world in strikeouts. I think he was overweight last year. He walks to his position. He walks off the field. You see no energy whatsoever, and that disappoints the heck out of me."

Ricciardi, who later apologized, and Brennaman weren't necessarily alone in their skepticism of Dunn's ability. After Dunn hit the free-agent market following the 2008 season, no playoff-contending teams seemed to see him as a good fit. The Washington Nationals ultimately took a chance but for only two years. Dunn just completed that $20 million deal.

And while the Nationals didn't do much climbing in the standings during that time, Dunn's own stock was on the upswing. He hit 38 home runs in each of his two seasons in Washington while learning a new position, first base. He was 21st in National League MVP voting last year despite a career-high 199 strikeouts.

Although the foot speed hasn't improved, the glove work actually has. Dunn showed improvement on the right side of the infield in 2010. (The defensive metric UZR rated Dunn minus-14.3 at first base in 2009 and minus-3.1 in 2010. An average fielder is ranked at 0.)

But all that is OK to the White Sox. Dunn might not be able to go from first to third with regularity, but they will live with it if he can get his teammates from first to home. His ability to go deep into counts, a skill that tends to boost his strikeout totals, can potentially be a boon to Konerko batting right behind him. And it can also help to chase starting pitchers from games earlier.

White Sox players are certainly taking an optimistic, open-minded approach to Dunn's arrival. And to be fair, Dunn will do the same.

Asked during SoxFest weekend which one of his new teammates he might have reservations about, Dunn didn't hesitate with his answer.

"A.J. [Pierzynski] was that guy for me for a while, but I hear he's a great teammate," Dunn said. "I got to know him a little bit over the last couple of years. A.J. is special."

The noted antagonist, Pierzynski didn't even wait for the ink to dry on Dunn's contract before letting his guard down and welcoming his new teammate. He appreciates the help Dunn will supply from the left side of the batter's box.

"Bringing Paulie [Konerko] back was the first priority for me, and getting Adam here is a huge help," Pierzynski said. "It's setting up that we have a chance, and that's all you want as a player."

That's certainly the way Dunn sees it.

"On paper [the lineup] looks great," Dunn said. "It's one of those things where luckily we have enough veterans on the team to really settle everyone down and get everyone to where they need to be. But on paper this is a fantastic team."

But if there is anything Dunn's past has taught him, it is that perception and reality are often in stark contrast to each other.

"I've been on teams before that on paper offensively our team looked spectacular," he said. "I think that we were a young group that was reading what everybody was writing about it and probably took it for granted."

So even with a big contract in hand and the perception that this White Sox team can do some damage, Dunn won't stop pushing back at the criticism that has stung him in the past. It's as though he remembers it vividly and taps into it for inspiration.

And it probably doesn't hurt that he is finally in the American League now after stops in Cincinnati, Arizona and Washington. He can spend the bulk of his time as the designated hitter, although manager Ozzie Guillen said he will give Konerko a rest at first base up to three times in a week in some instances.

"Nobody is hoping for big things more than myself," Dunn said. "I've always had a lot of pressure put on me, and it's never been as much pressure as I put on myself. I want people to have high hopes and expectations. That's what you play the game for."

Doug Padilla covers the White Sox for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.