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Monday, April 13, 2009

Everyday, I Love Elijah Dukes

Although Brad Lidge had his way with him with the game on the line in the 9th, Elijah Dukes still had a pretty solid game on Monday, going 2-for-5 with an RBI double and a solo HR. He also made a run-saving catch in deep right on a Ryan Howard line drive. Although Austin Kearns and Nick Johnson were named official starters to begin the season, they have each made 24 plate appearances while Dukes is barely behind with 23. In those at-bats Dukes has equaled their combined production in HR, RBI, and total bases, while hitting .381. And he is undoubtedly the best defensive player of the bunch, featuring the range of a centerfielder and a very strong arm.

If that isn't enough to suggest that the Nationals are invested in Dukes as an everyday player, one need only check out their broadcasts. Washington Nationals promos feature him as prominently as any player, including Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman. And they should!!!
Although Dukes played only 81 games in 2008, he lead the team in OPS (864) and walks (50), was only one off the lead in HR (13), and was second in SB (13). With the possible exception of Zimmerman, he is clearly their most promising young offensive threat, a lethal combination of speed, strength, and, notably, plate discipline.

One might expect, considering their are so many questions about his "maturity," that Dukes would be a bit raw in terms of his approach, but quite the opposite is true. In the first 138 games of his MLB career, Dukes has an 0.669 K/BB ratio. Maintained over a full season, that rate would be good for top 25 in the NL. And there's a good chance it could go up. During every season of his minor league career, Dukes walk rates rose while his strikeout rates fell, often drastically. It is not beyond possibility that he may one day be among the rare players who hits for significant power and walks more than he strikes out. He also has power to all fields and sprays the ball around, hitting according to the situation. Which bodes well for the fact that when he plays, Dukes has been batting 5th, just behind Zimmerman and Dunn, so he is likely to get as many RBI opportunities as anybody in the Nats lineup.

While he may continue to get days off against the league's toughest righthanders, I don't expect Dukes role to be considerably limited. And I agree with ESPN's Matthew Berry, who is predicting that he is likely to go 25/25 as soon as this season, with the long-term possibility of 30/30 or better (although his SB% in the minors and his injury history suggest he may never be a premier basestealer).

Perhaps most importantly, Elijah has developed a solid relationship with Washington manager Manny Acta and is clearly making an effort to manage his anger and not allow off-the-field problems to keep him from realizing his massive potential.

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