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March 17, 2010
Put Up Your Dukes?
Optioned RHP Jeff Marquez, 3B-R Dayan Viciedo, and OF-R Stefan Gartrell to Charlotte (Triple-A); released RHP Daniel Cabrera and DH-S Jason Botts. [3/17]
Claimed MI-S Anderson Hernandez off waivers from the Mets; designated INF-R Brian Bixler for assignment. [3/17]
Not that I'm a huge, raving, wildly enthusiastic fan of Anderson Hernandez, but as utility infielders go, you could do a lot worse. The Indians have expressed a desire to have a middle infielder who might spot for Luis Valbuena at second base against lefties, and however limited Hernandez's batting might be, he has at least provided some value against southpaws, hitting .289/.354/.396 against them on his career. He's employable at short, plays a decent second base, and has moderate value on the bases. He may not box out Mark Grudzielanek's non-roster bid for a share of the second base job, but he makes an adequate infield reserve for a team that didn't really have a true middle-infield reserve type who was major league-ready.
Released RHP Yusmeiro Petit. [3/17]
Between Jason Vargas, Lucas "Mr." French, and Doug Fister on hand, the Mariners were and are well-stocked for alternatives as far as manning the back end of the rotation, and Petit's slim shot wasn't helped by his being initially delayed in Venezuela with undisclosed personal distractions. Having already kicked him off of the 40-man, the M's appear to have not wanted him around to distract them, which may not bite them in-season or ever, but it returns a notionally useful fifth starter type to the open market at a time when a few clubs might be feeling needy.
Ick. Perhaps if they'd waited a few hours, they could have just wound up getting Yusmeiro Petit back, but instead they've got this well-worn attempt at retreading to sort through as they figure out where to get starts and innings during Brandon Webb's absence. Otherwise, there's Rodrigo Lopez, and Kevin Mulvey if you dig past Lopez. Happily, because of the scheduled early-April days off, the Snakes might only need to use a fifth starter once, perhaps twice before Webb might return from the DL, so whether it's Lopez or Mulvey or Benson, they might only have to let the temp chuck and duck a couple of times out there.
Signed RHPs Chad Reineke and Jesus Delgado and OF-R Luis Terrero to minor-league contracts. [3/17]
Released OF-R Elijah Dukes and RHP Logan Kensing. [3/17]
There are a couple of levels on which to look at this, the baseball side of things, and the rest. As a pure baseball equation, something this drastic looks stupid in the abstract, the sort of thing that, like Billy Beane's giving away Jeremy Giambi, defies easy explanation without the back story. Beyond any doubt, Dukes is an excellent talent heading into his age-26 season, a hitter with a spread of projections that put his 2010 performance possibilities between a base .270 with an upside trending towards .290 for TAv in the rosier scenarios.
That's a lot to give up for a last-place team with what really boils down to place-holding alternatives to fall back on. There's Roger Bernadina, slightly older than Dukes, and as prospects go, he's a speed guy coming back from a year nearly wiped out by an ankle injury; he's a better prospect as a fifth outfielder than a starting right fielder, assuming teams made space for fifth outfielders any more. There's also Justin Maxwell, the even more injury-plagued and older still prospect, a toolsy right-handed power source who, like Bernadina, has the speed, range, and glove for center; his upside projections reach up towards Dukes' median, without anything like the same sort of potential for development or becoming a premium producer in right field.
Those are the best of the kids in camp. Pondering their virtues, Maxwell might be best employed in a platoon or job-sharing arrangement with the reliably surprising Willie Harris, a utilityman with a talent for reinvention, and someone who went from a slappy speed guy rep to an odd sort of Secondary Average supersub, providing walks, steals, a bit more power than expected... and nevertheless somehow remaining unloved because he doesn't make for many easy comparisons. A less powerful John Lowenstein? A slower Pat Kelly (the Orioles' outfielder of the '70s, not the Yankees second baseman of the '90s)? These weren't guys who easily fit into most manager's pre-fabricated molds, and Harris doesn't either.
If Jim Riggleman decides to rely on some combination of Harris and Maxwell, that's not so bad. It's not a solution with upside, but it's a scenario in which Maxwell might carve out a career for himself while Harris provides his rare brand of value and utility. If Maxwell isn't up for it yet, they can keep Kevin Mench as Harris' platoon partner, or use right field as a slot in which they also cycle in utilityman Mike Morse. As solutions go, sticking with what they've got from among those options wouldn't be a disaster, and it has the virtue of not being a distraction.
If, on the the other hand, Mike Rizzo decides to play for bolder stakes, maybe he make Jermaine Dye an offer he shouldn't refuse. That works as well. Such a pickup could give rise to a pair of positive possibilities if Dye plays well: he plays well enough to retain draft pick-generating status as a subsequent free agent or so well that he brings the Nats something in trade at the deadline in July. Either way, it's not the sort of pickup that would cost the Nats too much in Lerner lire, nor would it squelch some budding All-Star's opportunity, or a Rookie of the Year campaign.
Those are the happy scenarios. After that, you get into hoping Chris Duncan's fully healthy and still able to have a career, maybe at first base, and maybe with Adam Dunn getting parked out in right field. They wouldn't necessarily get enough runs back to avert a pitchers' mutiny, even if Duncan's comeback takes. Or they participate in the ongoing charade that Josh Whitesell's a prospect—and park Dunn in right. That's the Duncan scenario without the glimmer of upside. Or there's the absolute disaster scenario, the desert-island-and-I-have-to-perpetuate-the-species-level option: Willy Taveras. Who is in camp, and viable, having been an everyday player in the major leagues as recently as last year, and still gifted with the speed that kept him ahead of the torch-wielding mob in Cincinnati that wanted him gone soonest. These are the permutations that should tell Nationals fans to stop worrying and learn to love Willie Harris.
Which is fine. The entire organization, new park and all, won't go sliding into the Anacostia. What's to be made of Elijah Dukes? Can he still put together a career? To some extent, I guess what's in operation is a massive failure contrasted against the expectations that were in play. When Dukes and Delmon Young and B.J. Upton were being hailed as the outfield of the future for Tampa Bay, visions of a combination like Lloyd Moseby, Jesse Barfield, and George Bell didn't seem unreasonable. Now, Dukes might be halfway between worthwhile reclamation project and irredeemable social basket case, Young is a lingering disappointment whose abilities are only a caricature of Bell's, and Upton's sort of the baseball equivalent of "Pop Goes the World," a bit of a saccharine whimper when we were expecting Michael Bay-level thundering, earth-shattering explosions. A couple of years removed from those heightened expectations, do we know which of them will pan out? If any of them will pan out? Optimist that I am, my hope is that they all do, but Upton might be the only one the safe money would land on, and after last year, that's not very safe.
For Dukes, injuries have been an issue, yes, and being seen as a problem with the Rays and then coming the Nats at the tail end of the reign of Bowden's kleptocracy might not have been the best situation for him to get a fresh start. But the other thing that can't be avoided as far as what's in play here is the race angle. I can't pretend to speak effectively or knowledgeably on the subject, but it would be insultingly shallow if we wanted to pretend people aren't wondering what's up. That's not directed at the Nationals, the Lerners, the people in DC or the people who buy season tickets. More fundamentally, I guess I'm not sure what to make of the fact that the reported response from the Nationals' players seems eerily like that coming from the Cubs' after Milton Bradley was suspended last September, ranging somewhere between solidarity after turning out the pariah to muted jubilation. Maybe that's effective messaging; maybe that's corporate culture. And maybe it's genuine relief that transcends racial consideration, because some co-workers are less popular than others.
I don't have an answer, but with the repeatedly voiced concern over how baseball may not be doing a good enough job in reaching African-Americans, and the recent kerfuffle over Torii Hunter's remarks, these are the sorts of things that set me to worrying, to little point. Progress has been made, away from much fanfare; it looks as if MLB's RBI Program is slowly but steadily developing the kind of reach, commitment, and sponsor buy-in that it lacked in its earlier years. That said, high-profile divorces between clubs and players, whether in this instance or Bradley's, create a contrasting high-profile narrative that reflects the continuing importance that must be attached to race in the game. We don't know if there's a way for a ballclub to provide the kind of work environment that lets fans see Elijah Dukes' ability shine on the field; we don't know if that's on the player, or on the clubs.
Whichever it is, Dukes' history of off-field troubles is daunting, and whatever organization decides to take a chance on him might want to come up with something besides the Nats' decision to hire an ex-cop to follow him around as a "Special Assistant" to keep him out of trouble. Maybe he attracts trouble, and maybe he creates it. The team that helps him break that cycle and settle into having a career will have done a talented young man a favor beyond the compensations of being a big-league ballplayer.