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Nats' Dunn learning about life at first

Before the Nationals sign Adam Dunn to a contract extension, they might want to see how he performs at first base.

Rival scouts continue to question whether Dunn can be even adequate at the position, but the Nationals take the opposite view.

This is the first time that Dunn, 6-feet-6 and 275 pounds, has spent an entire spring preparing to be a regular first baseman.

"He can be above-average. He might even be above average right now picking balls in the dirt," says Nats quality-control coach Tim Foli, a former major-league infielder who has been working with Dunn.

"He's really got nice hands. But he's 6-foot-12. And because he's 6-foot-12, he's got to get on the ground so his legs work and his hands are soft. It's easy for a shorter guy to get down there.

"He doesn't want to be a big donkey. He wants to be an athlete. And he is an athlete. To me, the sky's the limit with him over there."

The Nats have initiated talks about an extension for Dunn, 30, who will earn $12 million this season in the final year of his contract. First base would be his long-term position with the club. He has spent most of his career playing left field.

Manager Jim Riggleman says Dunn has made significant progress working with Foli and third base coach Pat Listach, another former major-league infielder. Dunn presents a big target and throws well,

Riggleman says. His biggest challenge is his footwork.

The Nats moved Dunn to first last season after trading first baseman Nick Johnson on July 31. Dunn previously had made 96 starts at the position, but admittedly was raw. He would watch the pitcher deliver a

pitch, and by the time the ball got in the hitting zone, he already was late with his reactions.

Spring training, then, amounts to a six-week crash course.

"It's like learning a new position," Dunn says. "You can ask Foli. The first couple of days, it was awful. I knew how to catch it. But I didn't even know which foot to start with.

"I've been on the left side of the field my whole life. Then I get over here and it's just very weird. But it feels really comfortable now. I can only imagine that if you give me another month, month and a half, it's going to feel natural."

Dunn is aware of the club's increased emphasis on defense, how his value as a free agent might be affected if he is perceived as a below-average defender.

"I'm not doing it for all that," he says. "I'm doing it because I know we need that for this team to win. I don't want to be the reason why we stink."

WHITE SOX'S RIOS: COMEBACK KID?

In January, White Sox center fielder Alex Rios flew from his native Puerto Rico to Miami to attend a voluntary three-day mini-camp hosted by bench coach Joey Cora.

The camp was mostly for infielders, but Rios spent time hitting with Sox hitting coach Greg Walker, and manager Ozzie Guillen also was in attendance.

Voila! Rio's stroke came back.

"I started hitting and it felt natural," Rios says. "I just said, 'I'm going to keep doing this.'"

Rios, 29, batted .199-.229-.301 after joining the White Sox on a waiver claim last Aug. 12, but he has looked much better this spring, going 7-for-20 with five extra-base hits.

While Rios says he did not change a thing, Walker says the two studied tapes of Rios' better days with the Blue Jays, when he had a wider stance.

Walker says he told Rios, "Go do that. It worked for you good in Toronto. Do the same thing here."

"The easiest thing for a coach to do is say, 'He's pressing.'" Walker says. "But I really believe that was true.

"The fact that he was trying too hard changed his mechanics. He started doing things he had never done before. We just said, 'Go home and forget about it. When you show back up, I bet you will swing like

you've swung your whole life.' That's what happened."

Rios is shy, Cora says, and that made his transition to the White Sox difficult; the move was a stunner because Rios had $59.7 million left on his contract between 2010 and '14.

"Mentally, I was exhausted," Rios says. "I didn't have anything. I didn't know what to think. It was hard. I can't even explain how hard it was."

This season looks like it will be better.

"He worked out in the offseason. He had never done that before -- he had always gone on pure talent," Cora says. "He should be really, really good for us. I expect nothing less."

DODGERS' ROTATION BLUES

Some with the Dodgers believe that the team's lack of a veteran ace deprives left-hander Clayton Kershaw and right-hander Chad Billingsley of a strong example to follow.

Another issue is that Kershaw and Billingsley run high pitch counts, preventing them from pitching deep into games. Kershaw averaged 17.7 pitches per inning last season, the second-highest in the NL. Billingsley averaged 16.6 pitches, which ranked 12th.

If the season began today, right-hander Vicente Padilla might be the No. 3 starter, ahead of righty Hiroki Kuroda. The fifth spot remains up for grabs, with left-hander Eric Stults and righties Ramon Ortiz, Russ Ortiz and Rule 5 pick Carlos Monasterios all in the mix.

Ramon Ortiz has thrown nine scoreless innings, but he pitched in the Dominican winter league, so it's not surprising that he's showing more polish than some of the other candidates.

Monasterios, who turns 24 on Sunday, has made only two appearances above Class A, but the Dodgers love his changeup. He was recommended by Ron Rizzi, the same scout who urged the Dodgers to sign right-

hander Ron Belisario out of Venezuela the previous winter.

"He hasn't pitched a lot at a high level," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti says. "But you can't pitch in Caracas, Venezuela, in the winter time and not consider that a high level."

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

One of my favorite things to do in spring training is ask players with new clubs to talk about a new teammate who has made an impression on them.

Mariners infielder Chone Figgins and right fielder Ichiro Suzuki were opponents for eight seasons when Figgins was a member of the Angels.

What surprises Figgins most about Ichiro?

"How much he pays attention to the game," Figgins says. "He has asked me questions, what I think about different players, this and that. I had never actually had a conversation with him before. It was something I really didn't know about him."

White Sox left fielder Juan Pierre, meanwhile, says he is struck by the work ethic of Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski.

"I can see why he has been so good for so long," Pierre says. "He puts in his time, whether it's in the cage, catching or in the gym. He's always working.

"He has the reputation of being a jerk from opposing teams. People can't stand him. But I always heard that he's cool if you play with him. Jacque Jones told me that from their days in Minnesota together."

Pierre and Figgins, by the way, are good friends who are sharing a house in the Phoenix area for spring training.

"I pick his brain every night," Pierre says, smiling. "I'm trying to get inside scouting reports on the American League."

PROSPECT WATCH

* Reds left-hander Aroldis Chapman has his last name tattooed in big letters across his upper back. He wears a large gold chain on the mound -- "a cowbell," one Reds veteran says, smiling. "You'll hear it."

* The Cubs are thrilled with the progress of outfielder Tyler Colvin, who added more than 20 pounds in the offseason and has gone 17-for-35 this spring.

"He doesn't look bulky -- you would have thought he had gained 10 pounds," general manager Jim Hendry says.

Colvin, the 13th pick of the 2006 draft, stands an outside chance of making the club, and his left-handed bat eventually could help balance the Cubs' lineup.

* The Indians' pitching has been surprisingly good, and several of their young position players -- including third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall and outfielders Nick Weglarz and Michael Brantley -- are making a strong impression.

Weglarz has drawn nine walks in 24 plate appearances, matching Jason Heyward's total in 36 plate appearances with the Braves.

* Looks like the Diamondbacks did well last July acquiring outfielder Cole Gillespie and right-hander Roque Mercedes from the Brewers for second baseman Felipe Lopez.

Gillespie, projected to be at least a fourth outfielder, has been the team's most asked-about player this spring by other clubs. Mercedes eventually should reach the majors as a reliever.

THEY SAID IT

* White Sox infielder Alexei Ramirez on his fellow Cuban, Reds left-hander Aroldis Chapman: "Minimum 10-game winner."

* Former Gold Glove first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, who is trying to make the Dodgers coming off surgery on his right (throwing) shoulder: "I never thought I'd see my name and defensive liability in the same sentence."

* White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen on his desire to make the World Series as a participant rather than as a FOX commentator for the second straight year: "It's in the players' hands. I'm going to be in the World Series either way."