Aside from questions about who'll make the 2010 DC rotation and whether or not the Washington Nationals will add more starting pitching or middle infield depth, the biggest question remaining for the next version of the nation's capital's Nationals has to be in right field, where Elijah Dukes will look to lock down the everyday role in an outfield which, barring any trade of Josh Willingham, will feature the Hammer, Nyjer Morgan and Dukes from left to right when the 2010 season gets underway.
Rumors last week that Washington was interested in adding free agent outfielder Randy Winn, which were downplayed by Mr. Winn himself who said he'd not personally been informed of any interest on the Nationals' behalf, brought back questions about Dukes' ability to become an everday player in the major leagues in the fourth season of the 25-year-old outfielder's career...
Acquired from the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays in December 2007, Dukes was described by then DC GM Jim Bowden, in an article by MLB.com's Bill Ladson entitled, "Nats acquire Dukes from Rays", as a player with, "'...the potential and the physical ability to become an impact player at the Major League level.'" In Mr. Bowden's mind, in spite of the well-documented personal issues which precipitated Dukes' departure from Florida, the Nationals were bringing in a potential future star:
"'...(a) middle-of-the-order bat that has a chance to hit 25 to 40 home runs, drive in 80 to 100 runs, steal 20 bases and play any of the outfield positions -- all above average..."
In 81 games with Washington in 2008, Dukes provided hints that he might be the player Mr. Bowden (and other scouts) had predicted, hitting .264 with a .386 OBP, a .478 SLG, 16 doubles, 2 triples, 14 HR's and 44 RBI's, but injuries hampered the 6'2'', 225lb outfielder's development. Early last season, Dukes was forced to play out of position in center for a time when Lastings Milledge faltered, and when he struggled defensively and failed to find success at the plate he found himself demoted to Triple-A Syracuse where he hit .279 in 20 games and 68 AB's over which he collected 8 doubles, 3 HR's, 10 RBI's and 5 steals while posting a .388 OBP and a .529 SLG (.917 OPS).
After being called back up to Washington late last season, Dukes hit .257 in 50 games and 171 AB's, collecting 7 doubles, 3 triples, 2 HR's and 22 RBI's, but more important than his production was the glimpse Dukes once again offered of the talent he possesses. DC skipper Jim Riggleman, who replaced Manny Acta at the helm in DC last season, recognized a change in the outfielder upon his return to the majors, as he told MASNSports.com's Byron Kerr recently in an article entitled, "Could Dukes have a breakout season for Nats":
"'Elijah did a good job with Tim Foli in Syracuse. He brought back that solid work ethic which helped him the rest of the year. It will be great for all the players to have Tim with us in D.C. all season long. He is an excellent addition and a powerful influence on the roster.'"
Dukes credits Jim Riggleman with providing the support he needed to succeed upon his return from Syracuse late last season, as he tells MLB.com's Bill Ladson, in an interview last week entitled, "Dukes' expectations raised for 2010":
"Well, the relationship that we have is right on. He would come up to everybody after the game and he would always say something encouraging. Because of the positive outlook that he had, we wanted to put out. Everybody wanted to do [well] for him, because he believed in everybody. So, I go into camp knowing that he is going to be the manager. He is going to sit there and give us 110 percent every day."
In an interview here at Federal Baseball.com last week, I asked MASNSports.com's Ben Goessling if he thought this would be Elijah Dukes' breakout year, the season when he finally puts it all together and claims right field as his own. Mr. Goessling's response:
"He'll certainly get the chance to claim right field as his own. The Nats aren't exactly scouring the market for outfielders, and they like the adjustments he made (both on and off the field) after he got sent down last year. As to whether it's a breakout year? I think that depends on a couple things: His health, his ability to hit a curveball and his attitude. Baseball requires an even keel, and Dukes has had trouble with that in the past, especially when he goes into long slumps (which often come because of his struggles with curveballs). He's definitely starting to mature, though, and there's no question he's got the talent. But there are a lot of guys with talent that never figure out how to produce for 162 games."
What does Bill James expect from Elijah Dukes in 2010? 107 G, .263 AVG, 19 doubles, 3 triples, 12 HR's, 55 RBI's, 9 stolen bases, a .359 OBP, .439 SLG, (.798 OPS)...Lindy's Sports Fantasty Baseball 2010 Guide (on newsstands now) includes Outfielder Projections which have Dukes hitting .281 in 455 at bats, with 22 doubles, 4 triples, 12 HR's, 54 RBI's and 12 stolen bases...What does Elijah Dukes expect from himself? As he tells MLB.com's Bill Ladson back in their interview entitled, "Dukes' expectations raised for 2010", Dukes is aware that this is a make or break season:
"I expect big things out of myself. I'm disappointed when I get hurt and have long stints on the [disabled list]. What I'm focusing on this offseason is endurance. I want to have more endurance than I did last year, so I won't take those long stints on the DL. I'm trying to avoid a lot of those nagging injuries that I have been getting the last two years, so I can stay on the field and put up the numbers I'm capable of..."
What do you expect from Elijah Dukes in 2010? Will this be the year Dukes finally puts it all together, stays healthy and produces the sort of numbers people have expected that he's capable of producing? Just how good will Dukes have to be to convince the Washington Nationals to take the step of signing the outfielder to a long-term deal? Is this Dukes' year? Or his last season in DC?