Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Debating the Dukes decision

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Elijah Dukes' Nats career ends with a .256 average, 21 homers and 102 RBI in 188 games.
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Jim Bowden sat behind a conference table in his suite at the Opryland Hotel on Dec. 3, 2007, having just traded for Elijah Dukes at the winter meetings and now facing a barrage of questions about the logic behind acquiring the talented-but-troubled outfielder.

"His book hasn't been written yet, just the first two chapters," said Bowden, then the Nationals' general manager. "The rest of his book is all in front of him, and we're going to do everything in our power to make the rest of the book special."

Twenty-seven months later, the Nationals closed the book on Dukes, and not necessarily for the reason everyone would have guessed on that December day in Nashville. Was he a model citizen during his time in Washington? Not entirely, though whatever issues he had since coming to town were miniscule compared to his infractions while playing for Tampa Bay.

No, Dukes wasn't released today because he made mistakes off the field. He was released because he wasn't good enough on the field to make up for the rest of the package.

The numbers, when totaled up, actually looked pretty solid: In 188 games with Washington, he hit .256 with 21 homers, 102 RBI and a robust .359 on-base percentage. But those numbers were spread out over two injury-plagued and inconsistent seasons. Try as the Nats might to throw him out there every day and give him 500 at-bats for the first time in his career, Dukes never could keep himself in the lineup.

There were nagging injuries to his knees. There were prolonged slumps that required his benching or demotion to Class AAA. And when he did play, especially last season, he just didn't produce at such a high level. A guy who homered once every 18 at-bats during his rookie season with Tampa Bay saw that power rate plummet to once every 46 at-bats in 2009.

Sure, he struck an imposing figure at the plate, and he was capable at any given moment of hitting a baseball 450 feet to right-center field. But he also couldn't figure out how to lay off a breaking ball outside the strike zone, was a sloppy baserunner and got twisted around in right field just as often as he'd throw a strike to the plate.

"This game is a game of adjustments," Mike Rizzo, who took over as GM when Bowden was forced into resignation a year ago, said today. "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, though, it's never strictly about baseball, and this morning's news was immediately met with speculation from all corners of NatsTown that something else must have happened to precipitate this shocker of a roster move.

Club officials insisted, both publicly and privately, that wasn't the case.

"There was no singular incident that caused us to release Elijah Dukes," Rizzo said. "It was a performance-based decision. There are things that happen in the clubhouse on the periphery that are clubhouse matters."

That statement, however, is loaded with subtle messages and speaks to the underlying reason Dukes is no longer a member of the organization. First and foremost, he wasn't a good enough player on the field. But on top of that, he wasn't winning over many fans inside the clubhouse.

There's a reason a guy like Austin Kearns is kept on the roster an entire season despite his horrific production at the plate. Kearns was revered inside the Nationals' clubhouse for his work ethic, his attitude and his refusal to grumble over lost playing time.

And there's a reason a guy like Elijah Dukes is cut loose on March 17 even when he's got minor-league options and would have cost the organization less than one-fifth of what Kearns made a year ago. He was an outcast within the clubhouse.

Not that Dukes ever really tussled with teammates. No, his infractions were less visible to the naked eye: reporting to the park just in time for pregame stretch, lollygagging during batting practice, carrying himself with an air of superiority not befitting a player with his lack of success.

That might have been Dukes' biggest issue in D.C. He acted -- and was treated -- like a superstar when in fact he was as unproven a ballplayer as anyone in that clubhouse.

Some of that was the club's fault. Upon his arrival before the 2008 season, team officials decreed all interview requests for Dukes would have to go through the PR department. So when he figured prominently in a ballgame -- good or bad -- he could simply tell a PR rep he didn't want to talk. Every other player in that clubhouse had to face the music when he screwed up. Dukes didn't, and that did not sit well with teammates.

The Nationals also hired a handler, ex-cop James Williams, to work alongside Dukes for his first 1 1/2 years with the club. While the sentiment may have been right, in practice it was just another example of Dukes getting different treatment than everyone else on the roster.

Some of this was also Dukes' fault. Though he endured through a difficult offseason, losing his father to cancer only three weeks after the latter was released from prison following a 14-year term for murder, Dukes didn't win over club officials when he didn't return to play in the Dominican Winter League and came to camp less than 100 percent.

"I think the Major League Baseball player, at this point in his career, needs to take his own career in his own hands," Rizzo said. "He needs to prepare for the season the way he needs to perform, so when the bell rings, he's into spring training and the regular season. The Dominican League was a way to get him extra at-bats, so we felt we got him extra at-bats. When he left, he decided in his mind he was prepared by his own standards."

Rizzo also didn't hesitate to say he believes his club will be a "more cohesive, united group" now, another not-so-subtle jab at Dukes' presence among teammates.

Will the Nationals be a better ballclub without Dukes? That's still up for debate. While some combination of Willie Harris, Justin Maxwell and Mike Morse could collectively produce better numbers than Dukes would have on his own this season, that's not exactly an awe-inspiring group of right fielders. Harris is a solid bench guy, someone who can be extremely valuable playing a variety of positions and starting perhaps three or four times a week. But he's not an everyday right fielder. Neither is Morse, who can rake at the plate but isn't defensively gifted and has no experience as a big-league regular.

Maxwell is a more interesting case, because some in the organization still believe his ceiling is high. At 26, the Maryland native may finally get his chance. But he's batting a paltry .103 this spring and hasn't played right field on a regular basis at any point in his career.

"There's about three scenarios," manager Jim Riggleman said. "Put the right-handed bat of Morse, the left-handed bat and defense of Willie, or the defense of Maxwell and hope the bat keeps coming. We'll kind of manage it game-to-game or series-to-series, based on what those guys are doing."

Whatever the Nationals end up doing this season and beyond, Dukes won't be a part of it. They had been contemplating this move for some time and decided today was the day to cut ties and move on.

Will we ever see Dukes on a major-league field again? Well, try as Rizzo did to drum up some trade talk, no other organization was interested. Fair or unfair, the player's reputation precedes him.

The third chapter of Elijah Dukes' book has now been written, and it ended just like the previous two. It'll be up to Dukes to try to pen a fourth chapter, hoping once and for all this story has a happy ending.


Unknown said...

He was a club house cancer, he couldn't hit a curve ball and he had bad knees. He won't be missed but there's a huge hole in right field. Is Jerome Dye still available?

alexva said...

Nice post Mark. We'll all draw our own conclusions based on how we view the world. We don't know him, we only think we do. I think it's too bad for him because that's the way I view things. Best of luck to you Elijah.

Pedro G. said...


This is the best overview of the Dukes release I've read today--and I think I read them ALL.

The folks who are moaning about this move are deluded. Dukes was given his chance and he never broke through. The Nationals gave him every opportunity and sign of respect. Riggleman even attended the funeral of Dukes' father.

Baseball is indeed a business. And Dukes never proved himself to be enough of an asset to that business. Potential only goes so far. Ask Wily Mo.

Keep up the great work Mark. I think you were first with this breaking news and you followed up with fine analysis.

After all the opportunities given him, the Nats are a better team without Dukes. END OF STORY.

JayB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin Rusch said...

After all the opportunities given him, the Nats are a better team without Dukes. END OF STORY.

but are they? I mean, Dye, Maxwell, Desmond, Harris...? I know Dukes isn't going to Cooperstown, but...

Screech's Best Friend said...

Mark: The African Queen and I just finished reading this post. You've covered all the angles. Thanks for the good read.

Mark Potts said...

Superb work, Mark. This really says it all: "No, Dukes wasn't released today because he made mistakes off the field. He was released because he wasn't good enough on the field to make up for the rest of the package."

JayB said...

He did not do the work in the winter that Rizzo said he had to to keep his job in RF. He just does not have the mental make up to make changes in his approach. Sad he could have been great.

The team is better off in the short term. Longer term, Mark is right, none of the current roster will solve the need in RF on a winning team. Contending clubs have rock solid RFs who hit 30 HR, 110 RBI with and OBP of .380 and field the position above average. Nats do not have that guy at any level of the organization and will have to spend real dollars to get one by next year.

Doc said...

Well-scripted article, MarkMeister. I don't think that Dukes had the social skills, and probably never will, to respond to the great opportunities that were upon him. Rizzo was right with this one, and unfortunately so.

Andrew said...

Mark, good analysis but my conclusion is they have nobody as an upgrade to replace Elijah. He was making slightly over league minimum and had the added incentive of playing hard to help going into his arb year.

Elijah's intangibles with his great arm also will never show up on the boxscores but think of how many players don't stretch singles into doubles and stop at 3rd on single instead of heading home on balls hit to Elijah in RF.

I just don't buy the whole clubhouse cohesion thing too. You have to be a great teammate but not go out with all the guys for pizza after the game for cohesion. If there is more to it, then tell us.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post: it's exactly the explanation I was seeking.

When are you setting up a PayPal account so that we can contribute to your cause (and your photographer as well).

JayB said...

Anderson Hernandez picked up off waivers by Indians......I will be right about Acta in time.

alm1000 said...

Great analysis and article Mark.

I am of 2 minds about this.

I agree that he was given every opportunity and was inconsistent at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths. BUT, we don't have a better option so why not start him and then if he gets hot in April then you can trade him. If he doesn't then release him.

The Nats saved a few bucks by not taking that chance but going with him had a much bigger potential upside and no downside except a very few dollars.

I feel for the guy and wish him well - just not in the NL East.

Anonymous said...

Mark -- excellent article, and the only one of its type I've found on the internet and I've been searching all of them this evening. The move seemed a bit curious at first, but taking it all in the context presented here, it makes sense. This is why you are needed in NatsTown.

natsfan1a said...

Thanks for the insights, Mark. A very good piece, as others have noted.

natsfan1a said...

Anon (7:20) it looks like the contributions link at the top right corner of this page may be live.

Anonymous said...

Another case of a young male athlete given too much money, too soon and without the guidance of a stable father figure. Hopefully he will get the help (or a swift kick in the pants) he needs before he becomes a statistic outside of baseball. As far as playing harder in a contract year...don't you think he would have started already before/during spring training?

Anonymous said...

Mark you are a damn good writer.

P. Cole said...

Bottom line, Dukes is not a professional. He could have all the talent and potential in the world, but this is a job and I think he took it for granted. I do hope he lands with another team.

As for our outfield options, we have plenty. Mark went over various scenarios a few days ago about who will make the team as a reserve. I think this opens the window for Taveras and Duncan to step up. I personally think Duncan can find his stroke once again with enough at bats, whereas Taveras is probably only good for defense and pinch running. I'm high on Morse, but think he will need to be part of a platoon.

Anonymous said...

Much more exaustive than on WaPo.

I agree He was never more than potential. Need to add that this was Rizzo making this team his and clearing out the Bowden. I applaude the audacity. Big Brass ones Mike!

Mark, Did he have a reason not be be early into spring training like Zim and just about everyone else was? If I remember correctly he was one of the last to report.

SonnyG10 said...

I was really rooting for Elija to make good, but then I did the same for Willie Mo Pena, and Austin Kerns. If Elija was not working out, then we need to move on. I'm looking forward to the day when we can count on good players at all positions and I don't want to see the Nats wasting time waiting for a long shot to pan out.

Anonymous said...

It appears the one underlying theme of all the moves Rizzo has made is his commitment to high character players and leaders in the clubhouse. Teams with good leadership and chemistry find ways to win games they shouldn't, teams with bad chemistry lose 100+ games for back to back seasons.

Dukes was another prospect with 5 tool ability but in the end was just another tool.

Nervous Nats Fan said...

What doesn't make sense to me is why they gave him his unconditional release. Sure, he might not be the best guy in the clubhouse, but the best guy in the clubhouse can't make your team win games (e.g., Austin Kearns).

Dukes had an option year remaining, and he's cheap even at the major league level. Why not send him to the minors or let him play, and then when teams break camp and the inevitable injury happens, trade him then? I know Rizzo said they tried in the offseason, but things look more rosy in January than they do in April and your guy is hurt. This makes no sense to me whatsoever.

Traveler8 said...

Mark, I think this article and analysis are excellent, and I think is about as definitive an explanation that we are going to get. I do hope that another team picks up Dukes, and he goes there with the right attitude. Thanks very much.

1stBaseCoach said...

Anybody who has closely followed the Nats knows the truth here. Thanks Mark for the best report.

Anonymous said...

It's been said, but I want to say it again. Mark, this was brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Dont be surprised to see Dukes sign with Pittsburgh, they're the new us.

gail said...

Great analysis, Mark. I think chemistry is very important on a ballclub. It's good to get rid of Bowden's awful picks. It shows us fans that Mike Rizzo has a more elevated view of what a Nats player should be - someone who can motivate himself to do his best (or , if necessary) overachieve. Someone who takes the game seriously. These ballplayers have been given great physical gifts, but only a few of them (i.e., Hall of Famers) give their heart and soul for the game. Ah - for a few Cal Ripkens in the Nats lineup.

Dave said...

Mark, as others have said, this explained the release better than anything else I've read or heard. Thank you for being there for us.

peric said...

First, great article Mark ... maybe the best yet since this started.

Second, it sure sounds like Riggleman and his coaches had as much to do with the Dukes release as Rizzo. Based on the audio recording.

Third, I do feel bad for the guy ... I'm not sure he even releases what is happening until its too late. I suspect that he may do well initially with people who forgive his arrogance But, eventually they may have found him strange or even odd, and not very savvy politically. Ending with them possibly finding ways to avoid him as much as they can. He in turn probably reacted to that. It seems likely that the managers and coaches may have had to ask the players to try to bring him in as it certainly seems like he was summarily rejected by the clubhouse captains.

peric said...

ooops type-o ... exchange "realizes" with "releases".

diggetydog said...

Mark, great analysis! I think the clubhouse chemistry angle is huge, especially for a team trying to establish a new winning mentality. Even if Dukes never demanded special treatment, he was still getting it. Then, not producing and acting arrogantly would probably piss off even the nicest guy in the clubhouse.

I like Rizzo's decision here. It's kinda old-school. Performance matters. It helps ensure that we have a healthy clubhouse for when all these young guys come up this year.

Anonymous8 said...

The Red Sox won the 2004 and 2007 World Series and they didn't have great chemistry. Think Manny Ramirez for sure.

ARod and Jeter?

Football teams I would think would achieve more with cohesion.

I think mutual respect is much more important. If getting the ring isn't your goal, then you have a problem.

Anonymous said...

I, too, have to say this is the timeliest most comprehensive reporting/analysis on this strange development. Great job.

Presidents Race Fan said...

Agree with the rest of the commenters here. Thank you for the best summary of the situation today.

Sad, isn't it, how many "potential stars" have been given their unconditional release after the Nats have found no interest on the trading block... Shows how thin the team still truly is.

Anonymous said...

How long before Dukes signs with the Indians?

Mark Zuckerman said...

Anon: No chance. If you were to compile a list of Elijah Dukes detractors, Manny Acta would have a firm hold on spot No. 1.

Anonymous said...

Real nice summary about Elijah Dukes release Mark! Everyone else has praised you much more eloquently than I can so I'll let their words do the job for me now. Really good job!! Off topic but please see if you can ask Stan Kasten about a spooky little off field topic!!! (Twilight Zone Big Brother scary!!!) This link was posted on the Nats message board an hour ago. Please read!!!

CoverageisLacking said...

This is a nice analysis, Mark, thanks.

But it seems to me like this is an explanation of why the Nats would have released Dukes in January. On the other hand, releasing your starting right fielder less than 3 weeks before Opening Day is simply asinine. Unless there was an egregious precipitating incident, which you and your colleagues are reporting that there was not.

It's amazing to me that the Nats are treating yet another season as if winning does not matter. There's no difference between their open tryouts for starting pitching a few years ago, and the half-assed way they are treating shortstop and now right field this year. This organization still does not have its act together. Sad.

MurrayTheRed said...

I am very disappointed, I liked Elijah!

I once saw Elijah throw a ball from near the warning track to home plate, for a strike! Every time he was at bat I would yell "Give it a ride, Elijah". During an autograph signing session I asked him if he could hear me, he lit up with a big smile and said "Oh, yea"

I am glad for one thing, that his being let go is for performance, and not for some kind of club house incident.

I hope he can handle losing his job, and that he lands on his feet. I wish him the best. Perhaps he learns more from this, then anything else, and comes back to baseball somewhere.

Mark - Are you going to continue into the regular season? If so, I'll make another contribution near the end of spring training. I love your experiment here, and think it's the best. No disrespect to Adam, I like him too.

Anonymous said...

got your postcard mark...classy

NatsNut said...

Please allow me to add to the praise on this posting. It's a great perspective because you've been in the clubhouse every day. I think it is a very candid and fair take on things, without crossing any lines. I wonder if the club would be sort of relieved that you said it, you know, because they can't without looking mean.

I'm sad that Dukes hadn't quite "gotten it" like I thought he had, but this explains a lot. I still wish him the best.

Section 222 said...

Great piece Mark. Many thanks. I have to agree with CiL though. All the concerns about Dukes' performance were there at the end of last season, in which he seriously regressed at the plate and on the base paths and all the "clubhouse chemistry" stuff, which I think is highly overrated, but appears to matter alot to Rizzo, had already happened. Yet he came to camp as the undisputed and already annointed opening day starter in RF. Everyone says ST doesn't really matter, that it's about getting ready to play the season, and yet, for Dukes, it apparently really did matter because otherwise he should have been cut long ago, leaving a lot more time to find a replacement. So something happened here, either off the field, or on, and we still don't really know what it was. Maybe it wasn't a single incident, but it has to be more than his lackluster performance or poor contribution to clubhouse chemistry last year. Otherwise, we'd have a much better option for RF than mix and match Morse/Harris/Maxwell.

Surely they did Dukes a favor by releasing him rather than keeping him on the bench or optioning him to Syracuse. I don't quite understand from the team's point of view why they did that, but I'm not going to complain about it because I'd love to see Dukes reach his potential somewhere.

By the way, how come no one is talking about Bernadina for the RF starting spot?

Chimpanzee Rage said...

Great post as usual Mark. Now, what are the odds that the Nationals use the same logic in eating the 8 mil and getting rid of Guzman? Slim or None?

TBC said...

The egregious precipitating incident that triggered Dukes's release yesterday:

Wednesday was the last day the Nationals could put him on waivers and pay him 30 days' termination pay at the minor league rate of his split contract instead of 45 days at the major league rate. So he is owed a little under $41,000, instead of about $109,000, which he would have been due had he been released later in spring training.

Simple as that. So why didn't they just release him in January? Because they thought there was a chance he might show up at spring training and show that he'd made the changes to his game that they wanted him to over the winter. Of course his failure to complete the season in the Dominican did not bode well for that, but they had to at least give him the chance to show them he'd changed before cutting him loose. Sadly for him, he didn't change a thing.

Anonymous said...

TBC - That could have been the motivation. Will we ever know? Probably not.

I listened to the audio reel that Mark sent out and the Rizzo tape was interesting when a reporter asked Rizzo about a supposed Maxwell quote that Dukes was a "distraction". Rizzo replied back to the reporter that if Maxwell said that then ask Maxwell what he meant.

Interesting, plus the Rizzo repeated assertion that it was "NO SINGULAR INCIDENT"! Well does that mean it was MULTIPLE?

All in all, I don't believe he was a Rizzo type of guy and that added to his demise. You know when you are liked by your superiors.

CoverageisLacking said...

TBC, that might explain cutting him one particular day, vs another particular day. But really, that's beside the point. Teams don't just cut their starting right fielder in Spring Training, whatever the day might be. Especially when they have no legitimate backup plan in place. Well, at least, well-run teams don't.

Andrew said...

Here are all the quotes from Dukes:

Mairtin said...

How come Roger Bernadina is not being mentioned as a candidate for the RF position? Having his speed at the bottom of the lineup with Morgan and Guzman right behind him could help Riggleman manufacture a few more runs.

Pedro G. said...

This was such a good piece I made a point to reread it this morning and check out the comments. Again, those bemoaning the Dukes move are deluded. Yes, MOST clubs don't dump their probable right fielder three weeks before Opening Day. But the Nats aren't most teams right now. They're a club that lost more than 100 games the last two straight years WITH Dukes.

Factor in the fact that their real future begins very soon with the additions of Strasburg and Storen. Just a few months away at most. The Nats more than any team can afford to experiment right now and try to start fresh. They saw all they would ever get from Elijah and it just wasn't enough. There was no point sending him down because he wouldn't have liked it and it wouldn't have helped those teams having Dukes around. And he apparently was impossible to trade.

The Nats right now represent the end of the road for guys who are given one last chance in the Bigs. That's just the way it is. Ask Wily Mo. Ask Nook Logan. Ask dozens of guys whose names are fading quickly from memory. Add Elijah Dukes to that list. He may get invited to another camp but it would be shocking to see him in a MLB uniform on Opening Day.

If Dukes still wants to play and he remains focused on that, there's always the Atlantic League. If that potential ever really kicks in for real, an MLB contract is easy to write.

One more thing--Jim Bowden as a journalist has equaled his skills as a GM. Unfortunately he just won't fade from memory.

Anonymous said...

Mark - Is there any way that this is a case of internal corporate badmouthing, brownnosing and jockeying for positions as the outfield was crowded with too many guys for too few spots?

My point is simply could someone have trumped up some bull about Dukes saying he was a distraction to get rid of him. Now there is one less guy in the outfield.

This quote in that AP article rubs me the wrong way:

"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."

Dave said...

Occam's Razor: the simplest solution/explanation is probably the most likely.

I think Mark just laid out a very understandable explanation that's been amplified by others in this comment thread. (Thanks, Pedro G., for example.)

The simplest explanation is not as fascinating as a scenario of palace intrigue, but it's the most probable. Dukes was just not getting it done, and returning to camp unprepared was just the last straw.

CoverageisLacking said...

"Yes, MOST clubs don't dump their probable right fielder three weeks before Opening Day. But the Nats aren't most teams right now. They're a club that lost more than 100 games the last two straight years WITH Dukes."

Which is why, if they were going to dump him, or were even considering dumping him, they should have brought in another real outfielder in the offseason. Now, it's another year of amateur time and heading towards a third 100 loss season.

"The Nats more than any team can afford to experiment right now and try to start fresh."

Not sure I agree with you on that, but in any case, experimenting and starting fresh would entail putting someone in RF who the Nats think can be a solid piece of a future contending team. None of the mentioned internal candidates come close to that mark. Also, if the Nats are truly employing this approach, Desmond would be their starting SS.

Pete said...

Can Bryce Harper play right field?

Anonymous said...

Anybody consider putting Willy Taveras in right field?

He had a pretty good game yesterday and the guy is a speed demon.

320R2S15 said...

Ok Dukes is gone, now how much more time will they give Willingham? I know the situation is in no way the same, but other than that three week hot spell last year he has not done much. I had hopes of seeing young guys with high potential in right and left. I was dissapointed to hear early on that it was going to be Willianghm and Dukes out there.

natscan reduxit said...

... thank you, alexva , for your post of 6:11, last evening. One of the best things about baseball ,over any of the other pro sports, is its fans who exhibit thoughtful, reasonable and caring attitudes to all facets of the game. I can tell you one would have to look far and wide to find that generosity in much of the mainstream of life. Thank you.

6thandD said...

Someone posted here that "if anyone follows the Nats, they'd know the true story behind his release." What's the true story?

Unknown said...

Chemistry is important on a team but it helps to have talent too. The problem is there isn't much talent beyond Zimmerman and Strasberg.

Anonymous said...

With Nick and his .400 OBP gone and now Dukes gone, the offense is rapidly heading south. Combine that with lousy pitching and we have the ingredients for another 100 loss season.

Anonymous said...

Dukes move= Fail


Dave said...

Anonymous @3:41 PM: Seriously? Have you not read Dukes's offensive stats? Mark and all the other scribes have laid out in clear detail the fact that Dukes did not contribute to the Nats' offense, despite his "potential."

How can you say the release of Dukes is a sign that the offense is "heading south"?

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