Nats acquire Dukes from Rays
Team thinks troubled prospect can become star in Majors
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the last six months, the Nationals did a lot of research on outfielder Elijah Dukes. They were aware of his problems on and off the field, but they felt that his potential to become a big league star was worth the risk. So the Nats acquired Dukes from the Rays for Minor League left-hander Glenn Gibson on Monday.
Dukes, 23, is a player Washington has coveted since the 2005 offseason. The Nationals believe he has the potential to hit between 25 to 40 home runs, and they consider him an excellent outfielder who can play the corners and center. Before the trade, Washington considered him a center fielder. For now, Dukes will compete with Lastings Milledge and Austin Kearns for the center- and right-field jobs, respectively.
Dukes finished the 2007 season hitting .190 with 10 home runs and 21 RBIs in 52 games. On June 22, the Rays optioned the troubled outfielder to the Minor Leagues and placed him on the temporary inactive list. Dukes didn't play another Major League game in the 2007 season.
Earlier in the season, The St. Petersburg Times reported that Dukes' estranged wife filed a restraining order against him. During his career, Dukes has been suspended for bad behavior.
"We feel that Elijah has the potential and the physical ability to become an impact player at the Major League level -- the middle-of-the-order bat that has a chance to hit 25 to 40 home runs, drive in 80 to 100 runs, steal 20 bases and play any of the outfield positions -- all above average," general manager Jim Bowden said.
"We wanted to make sure that we did our homework, that we did our research. We knew of all the factors there and if we did acquire the player, what could we do to help him to get a second chance and help home overcome the mistakes he has made in his life and become a better person? His book has not been written yet -- just the first two chapters. That's it. The rest of his book is only in front of him."
Washington has been keeping tabs of Dukes for most of the offseason. He was playing in the Dominican Winter League for the Licey Tigers under Nationals third-base coach Tim Tolman, who gave the Nats' front office nothing but glowing reports. Even a recent ejection in which Dukes argued with an umpire didn't deter Washington from the making the trade.
Tolman compared Dukes' power to Nationals left fielder Wily Mo Pena. Tolman also said recently that Dukes had been a model citizen with Licey.
"His performance has been outstanding. He is one of the leaders on the team," Tolman said. "He not only leads the team in hits and RBIs, but outfield assists. He's an intense competitor and he has done a fine job for us. When he leaves the ballpark, I'm not worried about him."
Because of his off-the-field problems, the Nats have a plan in place to make sure that he's successful on the field and a solid citizen off of it. Manager Manny Acta and first baseman Dmitri Young will be Dukes' mentors on the field, while Dukes will seek counseling off of it.
Both Dukes and Young were at the Nationals' headquarters in Nashville to talk about the plans for Dukes.
Young said the talented Dukes could benefit from a change of scenery and from some mentoring. Young sees himself as someone who could teach a younger player the facts of life, both on and off the field.
|"We feel that Elijah has the potential and the physical ability to become an impact player at the Major League level."|
|-- Nationals GM Jim Bowden|
Last season, after being released by the Tigers and sentenced to probation for domestic violence, Young received a second chance from the Nationals and he flourished in his new surroundings, hitting .320 and winning the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award. Young said by phone that he wants to give back to the Nationals.
"I want to give Elijah support. I want to be there for him," Young said. "I want him to know that he could turn to me if anything happens. He is full of good spirit. He is ready to turn the corner as a player."
Team president Stan Kasten said that Young's comeback played a role in giving Dukes the second chance.
"We were rewarded beyond our wildest dreams with giving that chance with Dmitri. We caught lightning in a bottle. Can lightning strike twice? That is the question," Kasten said. "I would be proud to become a franchise that would give guys a second chance and thrive because of it. But we are very aware of the past. Our standards for this player are the same. Nothing less would be acceptable. We explained that to Elijah."
Acta is a patient man who has developed players for more than a decade. He most likely will have to act more like a father figure than a manager toward Dukes. One person in the organization went so far as to say, "Manny will be the father Dukes never had."
"I think it's never too late to become a better person, and this kid is not 91 years old. This kid is 23," Acta said. "I'll feel better going to bed knowing that we could give this guy another chance in life instead of not doing it."
Dukes was not available for comment, but his agent, Scott Pucino, indicated that Dukes needed a chance of scenery.
"It's cleaning the slate and going forward," Pucino said. "He has made some mistakes in the past and he is trying to correct them and move forward. Moving out of Florida and going to Washington D.C. is a pretty exciting thing for him."
By trading for Dukes, the Nationals surrendered one of their best pitching prospects. A fourth-round pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, Gibson, 20, went 4-3 with a 3.10 ERA in 12 starts for Class A Vermont.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.