03/17/10 6:03 PM ET
Expected starter Dukes released by Nats
Platoon, possible free-agent move could fill right-field job
By Bill Ladson / MLB.com
Dukes' release is the most significant because he was slated to be the starting right fielder, but he was not producing during Spring Training, going 3-for-20 (.150) with five strikeouts. He had problems hitting breaking balls, and he was suffering from knee and foot issues.
General manager Mike Rizzo said Dukes was released based on performance, not any off-the-field incidents. But Rizzo did say the clubhouse would be more united.
"We just didn't see the progress we hoped to get," Rizzo said. "This was not a knee-jerk reaction on several Spring Training at-bats. We spoke about this throughout the winter internally. We had a game plan in place to see who was going to claim the job, and we thought we should go in a different direction by releasing Elijah.
"The things that happened in the clubhouse are clubhouse matters. We are not going to go into any details on what happened behind closed doors. We have a more cohesive, united group. I think the chemistry will continue to be great. We think we are going to be a better ballclub moving forward."
Before giving Dukes his unconditional release, Rizzo tried to trade the right-handed-hitting slugger, but there were no takers. The organization even felt that going to the Minor Leagues wasn't going to help Dukes.
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"We felt that he was a Major League player," Rizzo said. "We didn't feel it would help his development by sending him to the Minor Leagues. We thought that it was best for him get a fresh start with a different organization and for us to move on."
Spring Training looked so promising for Dukes. Manager Jim Riggleman indicated that the job in right field was Dukes' to lose. Dukes came into camp in great spirits and without his advisor, James Williams, who was dismissed after being on the team's payroll the previous two years.
The Nationals felt that Dukes, 25, was mature enough to take care of himself. After he returned from Triple-A Syracuse last August, for example, Dukes was media friendly and often talked about what he needed to do to get better on the field.
This spring, Dukes continued to say all the right things about staying in shape, as well as stating that he wasn't going to assume he was going to play every day.
"At the same time, I'm not laying back. I'm going at it every day in Spring Training," Dukes said last month.
With Dukes gone, there are three scenarios the Nationals could look into.
The first is a platoon between Justin Maxwell and Willie Harris. Both players can play defense and are above-average hitters who have produced this spring. Maxwell leads the team in walks (seven) and runs scored (eight), while Harris, one of the clubhouse leaders, was 7-for-21 (.333) with a home run and five RBIs entering Wednesday. In fact, Harris played right against the Marlins on Tuesday.
The second is platooning Harris with Mike Morse, who is have a great spring, hitting .333 with four RBIs. Morse hasn't played the past three games because of the flu.
"I think Willie is a good player, good hitter against right-handed pitching," Riggleman said. "Willie is a very good left fielder. He is less experienced in right."
The last time Harris played often was in 2008. He saw himself in the lineup because of injuries to Dukes and Austin Kearns. Harris hit .251 with 13 home runs and 43 RBIs that year.
Maxwell said the team had distractions with Dukes, but wouldn't say what they were. However, he is looking forward to getting a chance to show what he can do on the field.
"I'm working on some things with hitting coach Rick Eckstein," Maxwell said. "I'm trying to find my comfort zone. That's the beauty of Spring Training. You find your swing, be ready to go whenever we start."
If the two scenarios don't work out, the Nationals could go out into the free-agent market. They do have interest in outfielder Jermaine Dye. The right-handed-hitting outfielder played for the White Sox last season, and hit .250 with 27 home runs and 81 RBIs.
"We feel that we have the candidates to play right field here in camp, but there is always a possibility of doing a lot of things via free agency, trades or waiver claim," Rizzo said. "We are not going to focus on one form of acquiring a player. We are going to think outside the box and do what we have to do to improve the ballclub."
Where's Roger Bernadina? As of now, he does not appear to be in the mix. But things could change. He was asked to change his swing recently, and Bernadina has agreed to make the necessary adjustments.
As for Kensing, he was sent to Minor League camp last week and was told Tuesday that his services were no longer needed. Last year, he pitched in 26 games for Washington and had a 8.68 ERA.
With those moves, the club trimmed its roster to 44 players.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.