(I know, terrible headline. The NY Post would be proud).
As I am sure most of you know by now, Elijah Dukes was released by the Nationals yesterday. The Nats stated clearly that Elijah had not done anything wrong in terms of behavior, and that this was purely a baseball decision. The first question on the mind of many Yankee fans was, should the Yankees pursue Dukes?
Last offseason, I felt fairly strongly that the Yankees should try and trade for Elijah:
If I were Brian Cashman, I would strongly consider swinging a deal for Dukes. The Nats have a very weak farm system, so that the Yankees may be able to put together a package of pitchers enticing enough to aquire the mercurial outfielder. He would fill the Melky Cabrera role in 2009, as he is a much better bat than Melky, is not appreciably worse in the field, and runs as well as, if not better than, Cabrera. He would allow the Yankees to field offers on Xavier Nady at the deadline, and could slot into left field in 2010 when Damon and Nady leave. At worst, he would give the Yankees the ability to walk away from Matt Holliday, Jason Bay, and Manny Ramirez if the cost got too high.
I turned out to be wrong about Melky, and he put up a strong year while Dukes regressed mightily. The regression was such that if Dukes would cost prospects now I would definitely stay away from him. However, being that he is now a free agent likely to command a minor league deal or something close to the minimum, he becomes a more interesting option. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons:
1) He has plenty of talent: He had a poor 2009 that was marred by injury and a strange loss of power, but his 2008 was fantastic. I’ll let JMK at Mystique and Aura explain:
Dukes mostly destroyed the minors in the Tampa Bay system, then struggled mightily in his 2007 callup, and was shuttled off to Washington, where he rebounded to hit a line of .264/.386/.478/.864, an OPS+ of 127 in 81 games. His power numbers were excellent with .214 ISO, and he posted a strong UZR in RF (11.2), albeit in a very small sample. He snagged a few bags, too. All in all, Dukes was one of the few bright spots in Washington that year with his 2.8 WAR.
Those numbers from 2008 represent those of a star in the making. I am not really sure why he fell of a cliff in 2009, but it is clear that he has the skills and athleticism to be an above average player with the bat and adequate with the glove.
2) He projects to be better than the Yankees current options at 4th and 5th outfielder, and may be better than Brett Gardner: His projected wOBA based on an average of four projection systems is .346, significantly better than that of Jaime Hoffmann, Marcus Thames, and Randy Winn. Brett Gardner would likely remain the starter as he is a bit closer with the bat than the others and is much stronger with the glove than Dukes, but it is not hard to envision Dukes wresting the job from Brett at some point. Dukes is also a right-handed bat, so he provides the same advantages that a guy like Thames or Hoffmann does. From a purely baseball standpoint, this is a logical move that would improve the ballclub.
3) This is a good fit for Dukes: While he may not start right away, New York is likely his best shot to play in a winning environment for the first time while also affording him a reasonable chance of grabbing a starting spot. Being that Dukes has played for two awful franchises thus far, it might be a strong motivator for him to play with regularity for a winner.
4) He’s cheap, you can cut ties immediately if there is a problem, and he gives them options next offseason: Dukes will likely require less than a million dollars to sign, and can be stashed in the minors if he does not make the team immediately. Furthermore, there is no real downside here. If he acts up or plays poorly, he can simply be cut or traded without any repercussions. On the flip side, if he plays well and behaves, he can allow the Yankees to pass on an expensive left fielder such as Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford this offseason. It is the very definition of low risk, high reward.
1) His performance dropped in 2009, and he cannot stay healthy: His performance in 2009 was fairly shoddy, and he gained a reputation amongst National fans for having poor baseball instincts in the field and on the basepaths. The article quoted above from M & A suggests that pitchers were picking on him by throwing significantly more breaking pitches, and the Fangraphs data does support the idea that pitchers were cutting down on fastballs to Dukes. Furthermore, Dukes has had trouble staying on the field, with 4 stints on the DL over the last 2 seasons. Then again, if he gets hurt, the Yankees would simply be right back where they are right now.
2) There are some very serious behavioral issues. I do not want to sweep these under the rug, because Elijah has had some serious issues that include multiple arrests and prompted the Nationals to hire someone to follow him around and keep him out of trouble. Furthermore, dropping that a player with that sort of history into the shark tank that is the NY media frenzy may not be the brightest of ideas.
That said, I think that the Yankee clubhouse might be the best place for Dukes, as it is a tight-knit group filled with professionals who can set a positive example. Dukes is unlikely to disrupt such a veteran clubhouse, and as Mike Axisa explains, it might be the right place for Dukes to learn how to be a positive asset to a baseball team:
I think this is exactly the kind of support system that could help him thrive. Joe Girardi and Jorge Posada provide the tough love, A.J. Burnett and Nick Swisher would allow him to loosen up and be himself, and even guys like Alex Rodriguez and Joba Chamberlain, who’ve had their fair share of off-the-field troubles, can help him relate. I hate to bring race into it, but CC Sabathia and Curtis Granderson are two African American guys widely considered to be class acts and great people, and I can’t help but think they would be a positive influence on Dukes.
Might that be wishful thinking? Certainly. But once again, if he does something stupid and becomes a distraction, the Yankees can simply cut him. While it may add to the media circus around the Yankees, that should be irrelevant to the club, as they are certainly used to that sort of thing. I think that this is a risk worth taking.
Do you agree?