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Debating the Dukes decision

Mar 17, 2010, 9:51 PM EST


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 NatsRead more ยป

  1. Philip - Mar 17, 2010 at 10:07 PM

    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?

  2. alexva - Mar 17, 2010 at 10:11 PM

    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.

  3. Pedro G. - Mar 17, 2010 at 10:12 PM

    Mark,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.

  4. JayB - Mar 17, 2010 at 10:24 PM

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Kevin Rusch - Mar 17, 2010 at 10:26 PM

    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…

  6. Screech's Best Friend - Mar 17, 2010 at 10:29 PM

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

  7. Mark - Mar 17, 2010 at 10:32 PM

    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."

  8. JayB - Mar 17, 2010 at 10:44 PM

    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.

  9. Doc - Mar 17, 2010 at 10:50 PM

    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.

  10. Andrew - Mar 17, 2010 at 10:58 PM

    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.

  11. Anonymous - Mar 17, 2010 at 11:20 PM

    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).

  12. JayB - Mar 17, 2010 at 11:28 PM

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

  13. alm1000 - Mar 17, 2010 at 11:32 PM

    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.

  14. raymitten - Mar 17, 2010 at 11:39 PM

    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.

  15. natsfan1a - Mar 17, 2010 at 11:42 PM

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

  16. natsfan1a - Mar 17, 2010 at 11:44 PM

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

  17. Anonymous - Mar 17, 2010 at 11:48 PM

    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?

  18. Anonymous - Mar 17, 2010 at 11:57 PM

    Mark you are a damn good writer.

  19. P. Cole - Mar 18, 2010 at 12:05 AM

    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.

  20. Anonymous - Mar 18, 2010 at 12:10 AM

    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.

  21. SonnyG10 - Mar 18, 2010 at 12:17 AM

    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.

  22. Anonymous - Mar 18, 2010 at 12:37 AM

    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.

  23. Nervous Nats Fan - Mar 18, 2010 at 12:39 AM

    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.

  24. Traveler8 - Mar 18, 2010 at 12:48 AM

    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.

  25. 1stBaseCoach - Mar 18, 2010 at 1:04 AM

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

  26. Anonymous - Mar 18, 2010 at 1:26 AM

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

  27. Anonymous - Mar 18, 2010 at 1:49 AM

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

  28. gail - Mar 18, 2010 at 1:52 AM

    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.

  29. Dave - Mar 18, 2010 at 1:57 AM

    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.

  30. peric - Mar 18, 2010 at 2:03 AM

    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.

  31. peric - Mar 18, 2010 at 2:04 AM

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

  32. diggetydog - Mar 18, 2010 at 2:09 AM

    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.

  33. Anonymous8 - Mar 18, 2010 at 2:22 AM

    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.

  34. Anonymous - Mar 18, 2010 at 2:31 AM

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

  35. Presidents Race Fan - Mar 18, 2010 at 2:34 AM

    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.

  36. Anonymous - Mar 18, 2010 at 2:41 AM

    How long before Dukes signs with the Indians?

  37. Mark Zuckerman - Mar 18, 2010 at 2:44 AM

    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.

  38. Anonymous - Mar 18, 2010 at 3:18 AM

    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!!! http://econtricks.blogspot.com/2010/03/washington-nationals-are-spying-on-me.html

  39. CoverageisLacking - Mar 18, 2010 at 3:40 AM

    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.

  40. MurrayTheRed - Mar 18, 2010 at 3:42 AM

    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.

  41. Anonymous - Mar 18, 2010 at 3:49 AM

    got your postcard mark…classy

  42. NatsNut - Mar 18, 2010 at 3:52 AM

    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.

  43. Section 222 - Mar 18, 2010 at 4:28 AM

    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?

  44. Chimpanzee Rage - Mar 18, 2010 at 9:58 AM

    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?

  45. TBC - Mar 18, 2010 at 11:54 AM

    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.

  46. Anonymous - Mar 18, 2010 at 12:38 PM

    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.

  47. CoverageisLacking - Mar 18, 2010 at 12:58 PM

    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.

  48. Andrew - Mar 18, 2010 at 1:05 PM

    Here are all the quotes from Dukes: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gi9e8_7hokRlLcW-IWKLelx7hD2QD9EGK63O1

  49. Mairtin - Mar 18, 2010 at 1:23 PM

    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.

  50. Pedro G. - Mar 18, 2010 at 1:23 PM

    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.

  51. Anonymous - Mar 18, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    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."

  52. Dave - Mar 18, 2010 at 1:34 PM

    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.

  53. CoverageisLacking - Mar 18, 2010 at 1:41 PM

    "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.

  54. Pete - Mar 18, 2010 at 2:04 PM

    Can Bryce Harper play right field?

  55. Anonymous - Mar 18, 2010 at 2:05 PM

    Anybody consider putting Willy Taveras in right field? He had a pretty good game yesterday and the guy is a speed demon.

  56. 320R2S15 - Mar 18, 2010 at 2:08 PM

    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.

  57. natscan reduxit - Mar 18, 2010 at 2:24 PM

    … 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.

  58. Joseph - Mar 18, 2010 at 2:49 PM

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

  59. Philip - Mar 18, 2010 at 7:37 PM

    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.

  60. Anonymous - Mar 18, 2010 at 7:41 PM

    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.

  61. Anonymous - Mar 18, 2010 at 7:55 PM

    Marquis=FailCapps=FailDukes move= Fail Rizzo=?

  62. Dave - Mar 18, 2010 at 8:00 PM

    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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