Earlier today, the Nationals released outfielder Elijah Dukes in a surprise move, to say the least. The move was particularly unexpected considering that Dukes was expected to be the team's everyday right fielder, and he still has a minor league option available. Apparently, the move wasn't due to off-the-field issues, which plagued Dukes earlier in his career with Tampa Bay before he was dealt to Washington in December of 2007.
Now, it's not abundantly clear who will replace Dukes in Washington, but it would seem that the current front runners for playing time in right field are Roger Bernadina, Justin Maxwell and Willie Harris, a fairly underwhelming group. Maxwell has a chance at being a decent regular if he can improve his ability to make contact, but ideally you wouldn't want him getting 600+ plate appearances in a corner outfield spot. The wild card is Ian Desmond, who seems unlikely to steal an everyday job from incumbent middle infielders Christian Guzman and Adam Kennedy early in the season, but has been impressing the Washington brass all spring. He's been spending some time in the outfield, and it wouldn't be shocking if they used right field to get him major league at-bats.
So now that we've briefly discussed where this leaves the Nationals, I'd like to look at teams that could take a flier on Dukes, an immensely talented five-tool outfielder who's shown the ability to thrive at the major league level before.
Dukes, who turns 26 in June, was one of the most talented prospects in the Tampa Bay farm system, but he was consistently held back by character and other off-the-field issues. He finally put it together after being dealt to Washington for pitcher Glenn Gibson, avoiding the trouble that became a trademark of his minor league career and putting up some big numbers in 81 games with the Nationals.
In 334 plate appearances, he showed plus power (.214 ISO), impressive patience (15.0% walk rate), and above average defense (11.6 UZR/150 in 80 games.. small sample size, I know). Put it all together, and Dukes was worth 2.8 WAR in 2008, making him a 5.5-6.0 WAR player over a full season. That would've made him one of the best outfielders in the game.
But Dukes regressed a good deal after spending the majority of the 2009 season splitting time between center and right field in Washington. His ISO plummeted to .143 as his HR/FB dropped with it, his walk rate dropped down to about 11%, and his UZR/150 was an awful -9.6 for the season. Put it all together this time, and Dukes was actually worse than a replacement player in 2009.
Some of this can likely be associated to a major increase in aggressiveness from Dukes last season. His swing rate jumped from 43.8% in 2008 to 51.3% in 2009, as he started to swing at more pitches both in and out of the strike zone. He did show some improvement in his contact rate, from about 70% to 74%, and that did lead to improvement in his strikeout rate, but he seemed to eschew power for contact, while hitting the ball in the air less often as well. In the end, Dukes seemed to begin to take away from his biggest strengths, patience and hard-hit fly balls, and it really messed up his entire approach at the plate.
CHONE projects Dukes for a .354 wOBA and slightly above average defense, which would make him an above average everyday player over the course of a full season. Considering that whoever brings him on will have him under team control for a while, and he's capable of playing all three outfield positions, it seems that any team in need of outfield help should have an eye on Dukes.
Let's go through a list of a few teams that could definitely use Dukes' upside in their lineup.
San Francisco - I think that the Giants could be a nice fit for Dukes. We've seen troubled sluggers find a niche there before (what's that guy's name again?), and San Francisco's need for thump in the lineup has been well-documented. He's probably a better player than Rowand or Schierholtz right now, and he would give the Giants a hitter with some legitimate star potential.
Kansas City - If Moore and company wanted to show everyone that they have some balls, beyond having the testicular fortitude to trade for Yuniesky Betancourt when nobody else thinks it's a good idea, bringing Dukes in would be one way to do it. They probably don't want to block respected veterans Scott Podsednik, Jose Guillen and Rick Ankiel (hmph..), but the Royals can use all the star potential they can get their hands on. Hey, it wouldn't be the first time Kansas City's been connected to a former young stud outfielder that's fallen out of favor.
New York (NL) - Yeah, when Beltran comes back the outfield situation will be a lot less murky, as he'll presumably reestablish himself in center with Bay and Francoeur flanking in the corners. But will Francoeur really stick around? Go look at his K/BB numbers between New York and Atlanta last year and tell me he was a different hitter. I tell you to look at his BABIP. He's already making $5M in 2010 and I can't imagine that the Mets would want to give him a raise on that. Why not take a flier on Dukes and see what he could do in right field? Dukes' best moments in Washington looked more impressive than Francoeur's in Atlanta, for what it's worth.
Toronto - Not sure if you've heard this anywhere else, but Toronto's offense is looking awfully anemic going into 2010. Dukes would give the Blue Jays another option for center field if they can't tolerate Wells' (lack of) range there any more, and they could surely use his OBP and power in their lineup. Put Dukes in center with Wells in right and Snider in left, and you could have the makings of a pretty solid outfield. And as we've seen thus far with Anthopolous, he's willing to make moves.
Seattle - They keep bringing in additional outfield/designated hitter options (Bradley, Byrnes, Griffey, Garko, Langerhans, not to mention Michaels Carp and Saunders), so I keep wondering why they re-signed Ken Griffey Jr. for a second go in his good bye tour. Dukes is kind of like a younger Bradley (elite talent, elite character issues), so maybe Milton wouldn't be the best mentor. But with The Kid and others around making the clubhouse a pleasant place to be, maybe Dukes and Bradley could co-exist. Hell, they might even get together pretty well. Seattle's need for pop is well-known, and it would be prudent to keep an eye on someone so talented, right?
I'm sure that there are other options out there for Dukes; when you're that talented and that cheap, somebody is sure to take a flier. I'm just still wondering why a team that needs young, high-level talent so bad would be willing to cut exactly that kind of player.