In case you're not obsessively following all the Twittering coming out of Spring Training, let MASNSports.com's Ben Goessling (@masnNATS) set the scene for you as he did for those of us who were following the news out of Viera, Florida on Saturday afternoon:
"I think an impromptu game of Home Run Derby has just broken out here. [Elijah] Dukes, [Ryan] Zimmerman and [Adam] Dunn all hitting some rockets."
Mr. Goessling followed up on the mini-derby later Saturday afternoon in an article entitled, "Saturday workout observations", where he wrote that, "If there was a contest going,":
"...and it seemed from players' reactions that there was -- Dukes might have stole the show by blasting four homers over the left-field fence in the span of five minutes. But Zimmerman had the most impressive shot, launching a ball over the 30-foot batter's eye in center field."
Elijah Dukes is in Viera, Florida, in case you missed the announcements on Friday which noted that he was in fact the last player to arrive, (outside of Josh Willingham whose attending to family issues). Elijah Dukes knows this is the biggest Spring and the biggest season by far in his career coming up in 2010, he told MLB.com's Bill Ladson as much in an interview in late Decemeber entitled, "Dukes' expectations raised for 2010", where he explained that knowing he'll be arbitration-eligible after this season, he understands what a breakout year at this point could mean:
"Dukes: It's always important to have a big year every year, but it's really most important to get this big year right now. This can basically change the whole lifestyle of my mother [Phyllis]. Putting up a big year can change her life a little faster than expected. It would be a good thing for me and kind of relieve the everyday stress off her, which she has gone through for the last 49 years."
Between Double-A Harrisburg, Triple-A Syracuse and Washington, D.C. last season, Dukes played a combined 129 games, the most he's played as a pro, and he hit for a combined .254 AVG with 28 doubles total, 4 triples, 11 HR's and 68 RBI's, with a .382 OBP and .500 SLG in 22 games at Triple-A and a .337 OBP with a .393 SLG as a National. It was in the second-half of 2009 that Dukes once again got people in DC excited about his potential. In 50 games and 171 at bats, the 25-year-old outfielder hit .257 with a .366 OBP, .368 SLG, 7 doubles, 3 triples and 28 RBI's, walking 28 times and striking out in 27 AB's as opposed to Dukes' 18 BB and 47 K's in the first 57 games of the season in DC.
Nationals' Skipper Jim Riggleman credited Dukes and the Nats' Hitting Coach with the improvement everyone saw in Dukes following his recall from a stint in Syracuse last season in an article by MASNSports.com's Ben Goessling back in mid-January entitled, "A Q&A with Jim Riggleman", wherein the Nats' Field Manager responded to Mr. Goessling's question about whether or not Dukes can finally put together a full productive season by stating:
"I don't think there's any reason he can't, but again, that's all talk at this point. (Hitting coach) Rick Eckstein continued to work with him and make progress at the plate. He did some pretty good things. Any player who's his age, they're working toward the prime of their career, age-wise. He's going to be hitting his stride."
Bill James in projecting a .263/.359/.439 line for Dukes in 2010, with the Nationals' right fielder collecting 19 doubles, 12 HR's and 50 RBI's in 107 games and 346 at bats. In 81 games in 2008, the then-24-year-old Dukes hit 16 doubles and 13 HR's, driving in 44 while hitting .264/.386/.478. If Bill James is right, DC GM Mike Rizzo's going to have a tough decision to make next season, but what if Dukes is able to put together the sort of season that his 81-game-'08 stats project to with 32 doubles, 26 HR's and 88 RBI's over a full 150-162 games. That's the Dukes scouts have seen since the Tampa Bay Rays selected the 6'1'', 250lb outfielder out of high school back in 2002. That's the Dukes the former DC GM traded for back in 2007. A season like that might make Mr. Rizzo's decision even more difficult.