Elijah Dukes is out a job.
Projected as the starting right fielder this season for the Washington Nationals, after a poor season last year and poorer spring, Dukes was released.
Because he's been known as a "troubled" player throughout his career, it's hard not to believe this is a personal problem. A reporter on Twitter says that's not the case (for what that's worth).
I, however, tend to agree with this tweet—there is something we on the outside are missing.
Mr. Dukes Goes to Washington
For the Nationals, there must be disappointment that Dukes never put it together. In 2008, in 334 plate appearances, he hit .264/.386/.478 for an OPS+ of 127. After putting up 13 HR and 13 SB, a lot of fantasy players picked him for a breakout in 2009.
But it was not to be. In 416 PA in 2009, Dukes hit only .250/.337/.393, “good” for a 93 OPS+. He started strong (.279/.355/.500 in April), but by June was really shuffling (.198/.253/.333).
Although he rebounded from his June nadir, even in his best month after September, his OPS+ was just 99. That’s below-average, and at an outfield corner, you need more offense.
Dukes will be 26 in 2010, so he still has the potential to succeed—but he’s not a good clubhouse presence, he’s never been good for a full season, and he’s was having a bad spring. So he also might not. Sometimes you just have to cut bait.
Who's On Deck?
The more interesting question is, in an organization as thin on talent as the Nationals, who will step in to the starting role he vacates?
Among outfielders, Justin Maxwell will be most discussed. He’s got 129 PA in the majors with a career OPS of 108, and he’s fast enough to play center field.
The problem with Maxwell is his batting average. While his on-base and slugging are both decent, his career average in the minors is .257—including .242 last season at Triple-A.
The problem is he can’t hit line drives. Line drives are one of the best predictors of a sustainably high batting average, and his career rate of 12.9 percent is well below what you want from a major leaguer (18-20 percent).
There are a couple other players who could get looks, including Rogearvin Bernadina, another speedy outfielder with underwhelming minor league numbers, and mediocre veterans Kevin Mench, Willy Taveras, and Chris Duncan. Mench and Taveras have each had solid seasons in the past, but neither is worth starting every day at this stage in their careers.
More at-bats will certainly go to Willie Harris, Washington’s super-sub defensive replacement, and that isn’t a terrible thing. But in a team looking to rebuilding, giving a lot of at-bats to a short-term solution wouldn’t be prudent.
Another option is to move Adam Dunn back to the outfield, where he played for eight seasons with the Cincinnati Reds—and where he played in Washington before Nick Johnson was traded. That would free up first base—but for who?
Mike Morse has been OK this spring, and used to be a prospect with the Mariners. He’ll be 28 this season with a career 106 OPS+. Neither of those numbers bode well for him succeeding in winning the first base job.
The player most deserving of at-bats is probably shortstop prospect Ian Desmond. He’s been taking some practice in the outfield this spring, and while his bat would play best in the middle infield, he has more potential than any of the other players discussed.
It might be best to rotate him, Cristian Guzman, and Adam Kennedy between RF, SS, and 2B—so that Desmond could get some reps at the position he will (hopefully) one day inherit. It’s an imperfect solution, but it may work best for the Nationals.
(Unless they want to sign Jermaine Dye. But, given his defense and age, there are probably places he could be put to better use.)