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The surprise ending for Elijah Dukes and the Nationals

When the union between Elijah Dukes and the Washington Nationals first commenced, it seemed like it would end only after some kind of combustion. All of those tools and talents packed inside Dukes were going to explode and make him a superstar. The rage within him was going to resurface, boil over and blow up. Maybe one of those, maybe both. Something big was going to happen.

The relationship ended yesterday in neither manner. It fizzled. Dukes managed to suppress his demons. It turned out he was a preternaturally gifted athlete who was just an OK major leaguer baseball player. Last year, he hit .250 with a 93 OPS+ and eight homers in 364 at-bats. He had a -9.6 UZR/150. His WARP was -0.1. He was just another guy. There's time for that to change, but you wonder how much. He has been a professional for seven full years. He'll be 26 in June.

"This game is a game of adjustments," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Early on, I think the league adjusted to the player. Then it's the player's turn to make an adjustment to the league. I do know that he didn't make the adjustment he needed to to perform at the level he needed to perform at."

With Dukes no longer around, the Nationals have three likely in-house candidates to play right field. They all have clear flaws, or else they would not be fighting for a position previously thought to be locked down. They also possess reasons for optimism.

Willie Harris: The player in the clubhouse Dukes was probably closest to may benefit most. Harris admirably filled in wherever the Nationals needed him last year and, even without factoring his versatility, he had a 1.0 WARP. Harris wants a chance to play every day. He may get to show he deserves at least an opportunity.

Justin Maxwell: The best part about finding playing time for Maxwell is that the Nationals would figure what they have. Maxwell comes a military family and has character and athleticism through the roof. But he's 26 and it's time to know how much he can hit in the big leagues.

Mike Morse: The deal that brought Morse here for Ryan Langerhans could end up being a nice little trade for the Nationals. Morse has been one of the Nationals best hitters this spring. He's 27, but he has the body and resume of a late bloomer. He came up as a shortstop and never quite found a position. Through a similar amount of plate appearances in their careers, he and Jayson Werth have a similar OPS+. I could also show you a million stats that prove why Morse won't be Jayson Werth, but his ceiling really could be something close to that.

Back in Viera, Dukes told the Associated Press he didn't know what to say. This is a good primer on Dukes's background.

Stephen Strasburg chatted with fans and revealed his likes chalk and his alma mater for the Final Four. The Nationals lost again yesterday.

By Adam Kilgore  |  March 18, 2010; 7:30 AM ET
 
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Next: Why the timing of Strasburg's MLB debut is so important

Comments

One thing Rizzo has proven is that he prefers smart baseball players over raw athletic skills, which is understandable since we are talking baseball here. Ideally, a player is both a great athlete and attuned to the game of baseball (the best players always are both)... but Elijiah Dukes (like Lastings Milledge) was not that player. Great athletes, great talent, great potential... but not great baseball players.

Dukes showed glimpses of offensive ability in 2008, and then serious regressed in 2009 and as of right now continues to appear to have not taken a step forward. He was never a great OF, and he proved on the bases, at the plate and in the field he was not a player with great baseball instincts. Couple that fact with his intangibles (example: the team had to hire a proffessional baby sitter for him when he first came to the team, what does that say?) and it kind of makes sense that they let him go. If he had stepped up this spring and shown progress, they would have been happy with that... but he did not, and the team probably felt he wasn't good enough baseball wise to be worth the trouble.

I can't say I expected it, but thinking about it, it kind of makes sense. If you looked at what Dukes did with the Nats (.788 OPS in his tenure), he wasn't a dominate offensive force who made dealing with his adventures in the field and on the bases worthwhile... similar production can be had from a combination of the myriad of in house candidates the team already has... with better defense and baserunning, and clearly a less disruptive presence in the clubhouse (ok, he had no clear blowups with the Nats, but there had to be a constant state of tension that he could blow at anytime).

Good luck, Elijiah... but time for the Nats to move on!

Posted by: Ghost7 | March 18, 2010 7:56 AM | Report abuse

Is it just me or with Dukes release doesn't it feel like the ghost of JimBo has finally left town. But I guess we are still paying Guzman $8mil (I just gagged typing that) this season.

Posted by: peteywheatstraw | March 18, 2010 7:59 AM | Report abuse

My vote is for JMax but thats because I'm a homer and he is a Marylander and a Terp, it would be nice to see one Terp in the big leagues.

Posted by: peteywheatstraw | March 18, 2010 8:02 AM | Report abuse

Given a choice of those above, I vote D. NONE OF THE ABOVE, it is not that I dislike any of those players, I just don;t see them as an everyday RF with an arm that would make runners think twice about running to second.

Posted by: markfd | March 18, 2010 8:20 AM | Report abuse

This whole thing is extremely strange....something must have happened off the field that they're not telling us.... http://www.whatsgoo dblog.com/2010/03/el ijah-dukes-released- today-washington-nat ionals/

Posted by: iandsherwin | March 18, 2010 8:29 AM | Report abuse

I am still surprised by this move. To think that the Nats are quitting on Dukes when the expectation all along was that he'd quit on them. Did not see tha one coming. The decision to waive the guy may come back to haunt Rizzo.

Posted by: dfh21 | March 18, 2010 8:53 AM | Report abuse

I still think based on the 2 major events of yesterday that the Nat's should try Jason Marquis in right field.
All right, I'll go of that idea.


I would want our best defensive option out there most of the time. Without Dukes, we're still a good offensive team. If Maxwell is the best defensive option, I'd go with that.

This team is going to fail and succeed based on pitching and defense, not based on offense.

A moderate improvement in pitching and defense will do more good for this team than a moderate improvement in offense.

And a moderate decline in pitching and defense will do more harm to this team than a moderate decline in offense.

Give me defense or give me a blindfold.

Posted by: Sunderland | March 18, 2010 8:56 AM | Report abuse

"If the Nationals fall out of the contention, they could use to him accrue prospects."

Stellar writing there, Kilgore. Looks like the Post has gone from a beat writer who hates baseball but loves to spin the Mother Tongue to one who loves baseball but has English as his second language. I suppose if you're a baseball fan reading the Post that's considered an upgrade.

Posted by: TBCTBC | March 18, 2010 8:56 AM | Report abuse

I think Ghost7, and others who have said similar things in prior threads, have it right. Dukes has been given time to progress and hasn't, and he's just enough of a distraction in terms of his overall attitude that the gamble on his upside wasn't worth the downside risk anymore.

Here is another, similar view from Danny Knobler at CBS Sports:

Releasing Dukes fits National plan
Posted on: March 17, 2010 4:15 pm
Edited on: March 17, 2010 4:16 pmScore: 165Sign-up to rate:Sign-up to rate: Sign-up to rate: Is it a shock that the Nationals released Elijah Dukes?

Yes . . . and no.

Yes, because the Nationals had been saying that Dukes would be their starting right fielder. I spent three days with the Nationals last week, and no one was suggesting then that Dukes was fighting for a job.

But here's what everyone with the Nationals was talking about, and why the release of Dukes shouldn't be a complete shock: In just the last year, the Nationals have become more professional, from the front office to the clubhouse. Dukes was a typical Jim Bowden acquisition, a skillful player with a troubled past. He's not a typical Nationals player now, not in the way general manager Mike Rizzo sees the Nationals.

"Character means something here," Rizzo said last week, when I asked about the new professionalism. "It's very calculated. We believe that in a short time, we've begun to change the culture of the franchise and the organization."

Sure enough, that culture changed again today, a change for the better.

At one previous low point in Dukes' career, when he was with Tampa Bay, I asked scouts and executives how the Rays could keep him, and why any other team would want him. I kept getting assured that someone would take him. Sure enough, someone did take him, and the Dukes-less Rays, a much more pleasant and professional team, went straight to the World Series.

I won't predict that the Dukes-less Nationals will now be playing in October, but I'll ask again why anyone would want him.

Especially now that Jim Bowden is no longer running a team.

Posted by: BobLHead | March 18, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

For Pete and other MD alums:

Maryland Terrapins in MLB:

http://www.baseball-almanac.com/college/university_of_maryland_baseball_players.shtml

Posted by: smirkman | March 18, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

Zuckerman has an even better analysis here, as most of you probably know already, but for the rest:

http://natsinsider.blogspot.com/2010/03/debating-dukes-decision.html

Also, if you scroll down into the comments in that post, one commenter suggests that Dukes might soon join Manny Acta (and Austin Kearns, and Anderson Hernandez) in Cleveland. To which Zuckerman replies: "No chance. If you were to compile a list of Elijah Dukes detractors, Manny Acta would have a firm hold on spot No. 1."

So there you have it, again. Bowden collected guys with upside, and baggage, and attitude problems. It split the clubhouse. Rizzo is cleaning house. I'm on board with that.

Posted by: BobLHead | March 18, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

@Markfd,

Actually Justin Maxwell is considered to have a better arm than Dukes and definitely a better arm than Nyjer Morgan. His problem so far has been hitting. Lets see what he can do with 250 AB's.

Posted by: natsguy | March 18, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

smirkman,

Thanks for the link. How cool is it that Moonlight Graham went to Maryland.

Posted by: Section505203 | March 18, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the Knobler insights, BobL. An interesting read, for sure. Not to single you out, but generally speaking I once again suggest that those who comment post a link to a piece rather than cutting and pasting the entire content here or elsewhere. It's a copyright thing.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 18, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

"I am still surprised by this move. To think that the Nats are quitting on Dukes when the expectation all along was that he'd quit on them. Did not see tha one coming."

Well, actually Dukes did quit on them. It was a two-headed bargain he took on when they traded for him. He needed to turn his life around, and he needed to realize his potential. He clearly did not quit on turning his life around, but on realizing his potential he seems to have dropped the ball by not doing the offseason work he needed to this year, and furthermore acting like he really didn't need to do it in order to meet the performance expectations the team had for him. And there was every indication that this release was coming when Riggleman started talking seriously about batting him 7th or 8th. That should have been a warning shot across Dukes's bow right there, and apparently all he did was meekly go along with it. As Rizzo said, the major league player needs to act in his own interest and do what needs to be done to perform and keep his job, without need for hand-holding by the team. The Nats signaled to Dukes in various ways that they considered him to be a major league player, for instance by removing his handler and letting him make his own call on whether or not he needed to return to Licey after his father's funeral. Dukes didn't keep up his end of the bargain, so as far as being a major league player he indeed did quit on the team.

Posted by: TBCTBC | March 18, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

And I have to say, I've been curious to see what Maxwell and Morse are capable of... maybe with regular at bats, we will find that they are not capable of much... but, again, at least we will have better defense, better baserunning, and hopefully better chemistry using guys that want to be out there and play hard. Dukes sure was hurt a lot, too, on top of everything else... whatever that was about. Not saying that brings his desire into question... but it doesn't help.

As for Jermaine Dye, I wouldn't be against signing him for the year, but check out his 1st half/2nd half splits, he took a serious nose dive after the all star break in 2009:

Pre-All Star: .302 average, .375 OBP, .567 Slugging... 20 homers, etc

Post All Star: .179 average, .293 OBP, .297 Slugging... 7 homers, etc...

Of course, duh, that is why he is still out there... if he had maintained his first half numbers for the entire season, he would have been a hot commodity this off season... but, the fact that he is 36, losing ground as a defensive player, and had such a mighty slip in offensive production makes you wonder if he hit the proverbial wall in his career last season... not sure if he makes sense for an NL club to sign as an everyday player... maybe makes more sense for an AL club to sign him as a part time OF/DH who plays 4 or 5 days a week...

Step up Maxwell, Morse, Bernadina, or all 3 of you! This is your (last???) chance...

Posted by: Ghost7 | March 18, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Morse was brought in to "rescue" the Syracuse Chiefs offense because once again, JMax couldn't hit, couldn't drive in runs. Morse hit 19 homers last year in AAA and major league at bats combined.

One must give him a chance to do the same for the Nats:

Mike Morse
Minors:
425 AB, 137 hits, 59 Runs, 26 doubles, 3 triples, 16 home runs,
86 RBI, .322 BA, .383 OBP, .511 SLG, .894 OPS
Majors: (mostly pinch hitting)
52 AB, 13 hits, 4 runs, 3 doubles, 0 triples, 3 home runs,
10 RBI, .250 BA, .291 OBP, .481 SLG, .772 OPS

Justin Maxwell:
Minors:
384 AB, 93 hits, 68 runs, 10 doubles, 5 triples, 13 home runs,
42 RBI, .242 BA, .344 OBP, .396 SLG, .740 OPS
Majors:
89 AB, 22 hits, 13 runs, 4 doubles, 1 triple, 4 home runs,
9 RBI, .247 BA, .343 OBP, .449 SLG, .793 OPS

Posted by: periculum | March 18, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

From the AP Artical:

"I was pretty surprised," Maxwell said. "I had no idea. I saw him this morning eating breakfast. I never had any problems with Elijah. But in terms of the team standpoint, I guess there were other things being said and done and some of it was a distraction to us. I think we'll be better for it, and I just wish him luck in the future."

What was being said besides the past?

I know he is only 18 (born October 16, 1992)but Bryce Harper anyone?

Rizzo covets strong family make- up, and someone who is a pure baseball player with skills he has both.

Zimmerman was 19 (seems so long ago) when he came up, and Jason Heyward is 20 so why not.

Posted by: hansenjo | March 18, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

TBCTBC: Were you always a snide little snoot?

Posted by: hersheyman | March 18, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

>>>Zuckerman has an even better analysis here, as most of you probably know already, but for the rest:
http://natsinsider.blogspot.com/2010/03/debating-dukes-decision.html
Posted by: BobLHead


Thanks Bob. That is indeed the best report I've read on the entire episode. Good stuff.

Posted by: dovelevine | March 18, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

My guess is Burgess over the long run. He is the closest to Dukes talent wise with a left-handed bat and arm to boot. If he can somehow jump from AA->AAA this year you might see him in August with the Nats.

From Nationalsprospects.com (would be nice to add to the left-handed gutter perhaps?)

Michael Burgess
Hitting: Most likely wont ever hit for much average. .270 is tops for him.

Power: Outstanding raw power, plus, plus tool.

Running Speed: Below-average.

Bat Speed: Excellent bat-speed which along with his big build, gives him that plus power.

Arm Strength: Plus tool.

Fielding: Solid defender in RF but his speed holds him back a bit.

Range: His speed does not allow him to have amazing range, but it is sufficient enough for RF.

Strengths: Plus power, excellent arm strength and solid defense.

Weaknesses: Does not hit for average, not a lot of speed, needs to be more patient hitter.

Posted by: periculum | March 18, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

There is no way that Harris is a MLB starter. He's a good clubhouse guy who can play in a couple of spots, as needed, but I don't understand all of the love based on his career stats and his years of service with the Nats. The jury is still out on Maxwell, but he's a big improvement over Dukes defensively and on the bases, and he'll probably have decent power numbers even if he can't cut down on his strike outs. I'm not sure if Bernadina's best spot is rightfield, but he brings some different things to the table offensively and defensively. The Nats have power guys in the 3-4-5 spots, so Bernadina could help in some ways on offense. Morse is an interesting case. I'd like to see his numbers if he could get 300-400 at bats in a spot, corner outfield or corner infield, that is more natural fit than all his years as a shortstop. Finally, is Desmond the future at short or is Espinosa? Desmond is another one who could fit into the mix. All in all, I don't think we will be second guessing the Dukes move.

Posted by: Sonny9 | March 18, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the decision to jetison E.D. He has not shown an ability to adapt or adjust to the adjustments others made on him. I think if the Nats were looking for a reason to promote Ian Desmond to the big club they found it. He could man the rightfield position until Guzmans run at shortstop is over which will give the team time to acquire or continue to groom a permanent rightfielder.

Posted by: cokedispatch | March 18, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

"This whole thing is extremely strange....something must have happened off the field that they're not telling us...."

I agree. My fantasy is that Zimmerman went to Riggleman or Rizzo and said in so many words, "This guy has got to go." Or it could have been Dunn. Or both.

Posted by: JohnRDC | March 18, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

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