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Will The Devil Rays Trade Elijah Dukes?

Last week I ran into an interesting little tidbit of news over at Bucco Blog, one of the finest Pittsburg Pirates blogs I've come across, and that little tidbit of news regarded the possible acquisition of Devil Rays prospect Elijah Dukes:

"Just when you thought things would die a slow death in Pittsburgh, today there could be fresh hope.

I've heard some rumblings for a few days about the Pirates and Rays talking. At first I thought - no big deal, teams talk. Then I heard the Pirates target was Elijah Dukes and I have to admit I got a bit excited.

Reserved excitement, if you will.

So I started firing off a few emails to get some reaction from those around the game what it might take for the Pirates to acquire Dukes and the reactions were pleasantly surprising - most said Gonzalez or Gorzelanny. Everyone seemed to like the idea, one way or another.

Dukes wouldn't be the worst risk the Pirates could make. Inactivity, as one writer put it, could be. "

A few days later I encountered something similar over at DRays Bay, SB Nation's Tampa Bay Devil Rays blog.  This time it was speculated that the Rays and Blue Jays were discussing a deal that could send Dukes to Toronto in exchange for pitchers Josh Sowers and Shaun Marcum.

Though these are just rumors and nothing is apparently close, the fact remains that Elijah Dukes might very well be available.  

Chris Constancio is a frequent contributor to The Hardball Times, and runs his own player development and minor leagues website at the First Inning.  Constancio wrote a terrific profile on Dukes back December profiling his history and projections for upcoming years.  Maybe the most interesting portion of Constancio's piece came here:

Elijah Dukes is a prospect. He looks particularly good in the projection system I introduced in this year's THT Annual. In today's article I will follow up my piece on Chris Young and explain why Dukes is rated higher on my top 30 prospects list than he will be on most other similar lists. The career trajectories of similar players at age 22 suggest Dukes has a 46% chance to be among the top third of all major league corner outfielders by age 25. That's one of the highest values generated among current minor leaguers, but it also implies a 54% chance that he's not a star in his prime. And that's where the problems begin.

Dukes is a high-risk prospect. His athleticism and strong performance in all areas of the game suggest he's a future All-Star, but many people also believe that he will never realize his potential in the big leagues. He's not particularly injury-prone. And he doesn't have glaring holes in his game that might lead to struggles in the big leagues. He just has anger problems. Serious anger problems


Indeed, Dukes is rated as one of baseball's top prospects according to Constancio in the 2007 THT Annual, coming in at #4 out of 30 players.  Dukes' is rated above many of the games top positional prospects by Constancio, including Billy Butler, Cameron Maybin, Brandon Wood, Colby Ramsus, and fellow Tampa prospect Delmon Young.  The fact Constancio rates Dukes' higher than the highly-touted Young lets one know Dukes' has serious potential to develop into a quality major league player.

The problem is, Dukes' anger issues are more synonymous with his status as a baseball player than his actual ability.  Dukes is notorious around baseball for on-field incidents with teammates and umpires as well as other off-field incidents.  Dukes even threatened to quit baseball during one of his suspensions.  The makeup issues alone make an acquisition of Elijah Dukes a risky one.

However, looking at Dukes' baseball career, he has moved steadily through the Devil Rays' minor league system and has improved at almost every level:

As Constancio originally points out in his article, Dukes has made significant strides in improving his contact rate, while also steadily developing power.  Last season, at 22 years old in AAA, he walked in 13.2% of his PA's and struck out in only 14.1% of his PA's.  Considering his size and overall structure (6'2" around 245 pounds), Dukes has the ability to develop more power as he progresses.

On the defensive end, Dukes can play every outfield position.  Many have speculated that Dukes would play better at a corner spot, and that he will eventually end up as a full time left or right fielder, but he does have he range to play centerfield everyday.

A 22-year old versatile outfielder who's ready to produce at the major league level for the league minimum salary isn't a commodity you would expect a small market team like the Devil Rays to even consider trading.  

This gives you an idea just how concerned the Rays are with his personal issues and how crowded their outfield really is.

Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli each have the ability to remain Devil Rays until 2010 and 2011 respectively if their options are exercised (which is a big IF considering the Devil Rays payroll restraints), and as many baseball fans are already aware of, the Rays are grooming Delmon Young as their right fielder of the future.  The Rays might not have a spot for Dukes as a full-time player next season.

But is it safe for the Devil Rays to start Delmon Young in right field full-time next season?  Does Dukes deserve a shot as an everyday player more than Young?

One can make the strong argument that the Rays would be wiser in starting Dukes over Young if the choice came down between the two for a starting job.  Simply put, Dukes has excelled more than Young has in their respective times in the minor leagues.  Dukes showed more patience and power than Young at higher levels of play, and looks more equipped to face major league competition.

And even though Young has 126 major league AB's under his belt, he showed virtually no patience during his call-up, walking only once.

Numbers-wise, and arguably talent-wise, Elijah Dukes is a better prospect than Delmon Young and probably deserves a starting job more than Young does at this point, but all signs are pointing to the Rays moving in a different direction than this thinking, and it could mean the departure of Dukes via trade.

Judging by the two rumors already posted, it appears the Devil Rays are looking for young pitching in return, and why not?  The Devil Rays have a very strong minor league system, but lack young major league ready arms.  The Tampa farm system sports some intriguing young arms in Jacob McGee, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, and Jeff Niemann, but each aren't ready to face major league competition just yet.

Even with many eligible starting pitchers on their major league roster, a Tom Gorzelanny type pitcher, as mentioned above, would make a great fit.

And what other teams would show an interest in Dukes?  The Pirates and Blue Jays have already been mentioned.  What about the Marlins?  They might be interested in a new centerfielder.  Would they deal one of their young arms for a prospect like Dukes?  What about the Rangers?  Even with many outfielders on their major league roster, they could show interest in Dukes as an outfielder or designated hitter.

Just speculation on my part, but if Dukes is available, I would imagine the market for his services wouldn't be small.

So, will the Devil Rays Trade Elijah Dukes?  The possibility is there.  The Rays appear to be leaning toward Delmon Young as their star positional player of the future, and even though Dukes is arguably the better player, his personal problems and anger issues have led the Rays to explore a possible trade of their troubled, yet talented outfielder.

I know the "change of scenery" cliché is used far too frequently in professional sports, but all Dukes might need is a fresh start somewhere else.  He's not likely to play as a full-time major league player in Tampa next season, and if the Devil Rays can send Dukes to a team in need of a big-league outfielder and acquire young pitching at the same time, Dukes and the Devil Rays will probably be better off without each other.

[editor's note, by Jeff Sackmann] The Devil Rays will also be better off without this.