Nationals Release Elijah Dukes

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IMarch 17, 2010

In a very surprising move, the Nationals today released Elijah Dukes.  Washington GM Mike Rizzo says it was a performance-based decision and had nothing to do with Dukes’ off-the-field conduct, although he also said that team “will be a more cohesive, united group” without Dukes.  Here’s a blog from the Washington Post.

In point of fact, Dukes was having a lousy Spring, hitting only 3 for 20 with a .511 OPS.  Still, it’s hard to understand releasing him before the final week of Spring Training, given his talent level and the Nats’ desperate need for young talent.

I have not doubt that Dukes was unhappy with his demotion after the Nats acquired Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham the off-season before last, which meant less playing time for Dukes in 2009.

I will also grant that Dukes didn’t play well last year, hitting only .250 with a .730 OPS, which is not nearly good enough for a corner outfielder.   However, his .337 on-base percentage wasn’t bad, and 2009 could well have been his sophmore-slump season (he had 460 ABs coming into the 2009 season).

I think this is a mistake by the Nats.  I remember that when the Nats signed Adam Dunn before the 2009 season, I thought it was a good move, because Dunn does put up big offensive numbers and the Nats got him at a relatively bargain price for two seasons.

However, I had to admit the validity of the argument made at the time that signing Dunn was a huge mistake if it meant less playing time for their young outfielders Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes.  The Nats subsequently turned Milledge into Nijer Morgan, which has turned out better for the Nats so far than one could have expected at the beginning of the 2009 season.

However, the Nats have now turned Dukes into nothing, and despite all the moves they made this off-season and the signing of Steven Strasburg, the Nats look an awful lot like an old, bad team with no chance of contending any time soon.  Even if Strasburg lives up to the hype, one great starter isn’t going to make the Nats a play-off team.

Even if the Nats draft Bryce Harper in the 2010 Draft, and he also lives up to the hype, it will be at least three or four years before he contributes significantly at the major league level.  In the meantime, the Nats may still be a team that can’t play .500 baseball because they remain awash in over-the-hill veterans without enough talent left.

On that note, I read a piece by the Washington Post’s Tom Boswell, an old lion of the sports writing profession, who thinks that “stat lovers” may be a new inefficiency in the market, such that the Nationals would get a bargain by re-signing Adam Dunn to a three-year $40 million contract.

Boswell’s argument is essentially that fangraphs and related sites have generated new stats which suggest that Adam Dunn’s defense at either left field or 1B is exceptionally bad.  Boswell discounts that and looks at Dunn’s great offensive performance over the past six seasons.

I think Boswell is an old lion who needs to have a younger, stronger lion push him off his perch for the good of the pride.  The “stat lovers” are fully aware of Dunn’s value as an offensive player.  Dunn is today regarded as highly as he is as an offensive player only because the “stat lovers” over the last thirty years have shown the primary importance of on-base percentage and slugging percentage as measures of offensive performance, the two stats in which Dunn truly excels.

I don’t know whether Dunn’s defense is really as bad as fangraphs’ UZR ratings suggest, and his great offensive numbers are certainly more quantifiable.  However, one thing I am sure about is that the odds are way over 50% that his career will have “jumped the shark” by the end of the 2010 season.

Dunn is 30 this year, and players his size ( lists him at 6′6″ and 287 lbs) do not fair well as a group after age 30.  You can call that “stat loving” or you can call it an awareness of the history of baseball since the professional sport began in the 1870’s.

Either way, Dunn is not a good bet on a three-year $40 million contract, at least not in the present player market.

There is reason to believe that Dunn has already peaked and will begin to decline.  He hit 38 HRs last year, the first time in six seasons he failed to hit 40.

His 2009 .927 OPS was one of the best of his career.  However, his career highs (excluding his half season as a rookie in 20010) were .957 in 2005 and .940 in 2007, the years he was age 25 and 27 respectively.  This is typical for major league players.

If I had to bet on it, I would bet that Dunn has no more than one more season in his major league career in which he plays regularly enough to qualify for the batting title and has an OPS of .900 or higher, if that.  Most likely, that season will be 2010 or 2011.

In the meantime, the Giants should seriously consider snatching up Dukes, if he can be signed to a bargain contract.  He’s a right-handed hitting outfielder with potential power and he’s still young (he turns 26 in late June), which are two things the Giants desperately need.