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In surprising move, Washington Nationals release outfielder Elijah Dukes

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010; D01

KISSIMMEE, FLA. -- Elijah Dukes's tenure with the Washington Nationals ended Wednesday when the team unconditionally released him, a decision the team said was made for reasons pertaining only to baseball. The move left Dukes stunned and the Nationals without a set right fielder with the season less than three weeks away.

General Manager Mike Rizzo called Dukes's release "a performance-based decision" and that "no singular incident" led to the decision. But Rizzo also implied that Dukes's presence in the clubhouse adversely affected the Nationals, saying they "will be a more cohesive group" without him.

"The clubhouse will be more united," Rizzo said. "We'll have a better feel around the ballclub. We'll gain just by that alone."

In two seasons with the Nationals, Dukes delivered neither on his massive promise as a hitter nor on the ominous warnings his past legal troubles portended. On the field, he was mostly average. In his personal life, he endured tragedy and, those around him said, grew up.

Grady Irvin, Dukes's attorney, echoed the Nationals' firm assertion that Dukes had experienced no off-field problems.

"There are absolutely no off-the-field issues whatsoever," Irvin said. "Absolutely none. You can look at anything you want to. He's matured so much as a person and a responsible father. He'll be fine. He'll be just fine. He's going to be an asset to some major league team."

Last year, Dukes hit .250, with eight home runs in 364 at-bats. His defense was below average, when measured by the leading advanced metric. One major league executive said Dukes was terribly inconsistent, capable of playing well one week and awful the next.

"There's things that are performance-based that go beyond batting average and fielding percentage," Rizzo said.

The decision took the Nationals' clubhouse by surprise.

"I had no idea. I saw him this morning eating breakfast," outfielder Justin Maxwell said. "I never had any problems with Elijah. But in terms of the team standpoint, I guess there were other things being said and done and some of it was a distraction to us. I think we'll be better for it, and I just wish him luck in the future."

One Nationals player said Dukes was often louder than most teammates in the clubhouse, but not to the point of becoming burdensome. Outfielder Roger Bernadina, one of Dukes's potential replacements, said he never saw that side of Dukes.

"He was cool," Bernadina said. "I had no problems with him."

The Nationals discussed the possibility of parting ways with Dukes this winter. They "made several inquiries to many" teams, Rizzo said. "We found there was no interest in a trade for Elijah." The Nationals could have also optioned Dukes to Class AAA Syracuse, but "we didn't feel it would help his development to send him down to the minor leagues," Rizzo said.

Over the past several days, Manager Jim Riggleman said, Nationals brass discussed right field and came to a conclusion regarding Dukes: "We like some other options in right field, really," Riggleman said.

The Nationals may man right field with a group of players that includes Maxwell, an Olney native, Bernadina, Mike Morse and Willie Harris. The Nationals believe they will get better production by platooning a combination of those players than by playing Dukes alone.

The Nationals also will consider looking outside the organization for a replacement, Rizzo said. The most attractive available free agent candidate for right field is Jermaine Dye, who spent the last five years with the Chicago White Sox.

Dye would be willing to play for the Nationals, according to a person close to the outfielder. Acquiring Dye would give the Nationals a veteran who hit 27 home runs last seasons to go with a .340 on-base percentage.

Dye also would give them a potentially valuable trade bargaining chip. Dye is typically a fast starter -- over the past five seasons, he has an .891 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) before the all-star break. If the Nationals fall out of the contention, they could use to him accrue prospects.

The Nationals had reason to act on Dukes on Wednesday. If they waited another day, they would have had to pay Dukes's entire 2010 salary. Instead, because Dukes has fewer than three seasons of major league service, they will owe him only 30 days' pay.

Still, the decision came out of nowhere for Dukes. "Everyone in Elijah's camp is surprised," Irvin said.

Team officials believed Dukes had matured this offseason. Dukes's father died of cancer in November three weeks after he was released from prison. Elijah Dukes Sr. spent 14 years in jail after pleading guilty to shooting a man. Dukes was 12 when his father went to jail. Riggleman attended Elijah Dukes Sr.'s wake in December.

"It's just a baseball decision that you have to kind of take your heart out of it and make a decision that you think is best for the ballclub," Riggleman said. "It's kind of a situation that a lot of us put our heads together, and we just feel that in a baseball sense, we're going to be a better ballclub if we go a different direction there."

Dukes never fell into legal trouble with Washington, but prior problems stuck with him. Former Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, the man who brought Dukes to the Nationals, referred to Dukes's "latest incident" on his Twitter account.

Nationals President Stan Kasten released a statement saying, "I know of no 'incident' as it pertains to Elijah Dukes and his unconditional release. People who are saying this don't know what they're talking about."

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