Friday, September 4, 2009

Is It a Trap?

In his April 14 column, Tom Boswell suggested that the Nats were considering demoting Lastings Milledge to AAA. Boz was prescient, as Milledge was demoted that same afternoon.

Are the Nats using the press again, this time to ready the fans for an offseason non-tender of Elijah Dukes?

On June 30, Ladson noted that the Nats were "looking to trade Dukes, and that may be hard to do because he comes with a lot of off-the-field baggage."

Boz had plenty of negative things to say about Dukes in his August 27 and September 3 chats, and he had some advice for Nats fans: "don't be amazed if the Nats 'non-tender' him if he finishes weakly."

In his most recent mailbag, Ladson floated one possibility for Roger Bernadina's future: "Then again, if the Nationals are not happy with Elijah Dukes, I could see Bernadina getting at chance in right field."

Speculating on the 2010 Opening Day roster, Phil Wood remarked that "it wouldn't surprise me to see the club non-tender a couple of guys, perhaps even Elijah Dukes."

While Dukes may have had some trouble showing up on time and making his child support payments, and while he may not be well-liked in the clubhouse or the front office, he appears to have become a relative model citizen compared to his "You dead, dawg" days.

Dukes is having a terrible year with both the bat and the glove, but he still bears the mark of "potential." His 2008 was as good as his 2009 is bad. For the sake of argument, let's also assume he's a giant prick who parks in the handicapped spot, always takes a penny but never leaves one, and everyone hates him. Non-tendering Elijah Dukes would be a huge mistake.

Dukes turned 25 this past June. Cot's Baseball Contracts says he had just over a year of service time at the start of the 2009 season, so Dukes won't even be eligible for arbitration for a couple of years. It seems like he's been around for a while, but to put Dukes' service time (1.083) in context, consider that Jesus Flores (1.158) and Matt Chico (2.000) both had more major league service time than Dukes coming into this season.

Non-tendering Dukes would be trading Milledge all over again, except the Nats would get nothing in return. If Bowden handed out too many second chances, Rizzo has gone too far in the opposite direction, showing no affinity for reclamation projects whatsoever, even when a longer look might be beneficial for both the player and the team in the long term. Instead of trying to figure out what's wrong with the player or the organization and trying to fix it, Rizzo prefers to move on to someone easier, even if he's older or less talented. So out goes Milledge, and maybe out goes Dukes, all because of impatience and a slavish devotion to makeup.

Dumping Milledge might have been a win-now move made by a guy looking to keep his job, but there were valid baseball reasons for bringing in a competent glove to anchor the outfield defense. The Nats would have no comparable excuse for cutting ties with Dukes. The team might point to Dukes' 2009 numbers and claim it was a baseball decision, but it would really be just another case of Rizzo playing with his chemistry set.

Update: Dukes is going to play for the Licey Tigers in the Dominican winter league. We'll see if this represents some kind of commitment to Dukes. He could play winter ball and get non-tendered anyway.

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