Nationals release Elijah Dukes (Updated)

Big news early this morning in Kissimmee: The Nationals just announced they’ve unconditionally released right fielder Elijah Dukes, who was all but assured of being the starting right fielder at the beginning of the spring.

I’ll update this blog post and Twitter with more soon. Stay tuned.

Update (12:36 p.m.): We’ve done the run of interviews with Mike Rizzo, Jim Riggleman and Justin Maxwell (one possible replacement), and from those interviews, as well as discussions with other team officials, here’s my synopsis of what happened:

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The Nationals felt Dukes wasn’t hitting and wasn’t going to finalize adjustments to his swing to recognize off-speed pitches anytime before the season. He wasn’t well-liked in the clubhouse, according to sources. Maxwell said there were “distractions” with Dukes in the past, though he wouldn’t elaborate on what those were, and Rizzo said the Nationals will be a more “cohesive, united group” without Dukes. His WARP last year was -0.1, meaning he was actually slightly worse than the readily-available replacement.

Dukes has long been touted as one of baseball’s great raw talents, but had a history of injuries in addition to his trouble at the plate. He had a 2.8 WARP in 2008, his best season, but never played more than 107 games in a year. And utility player Willie Harris, one of the candidates to replace Dukes in right field, had a better WARP than Dukes in 2008 and 2009 -- without any of the clubhouse issues the Nationals felt Dukes caused.

The Nationals took all that into account and tried to trade him. When they couldn’t, they concluded a change of scenery would be best for Dukes, and he couldn’t help their organization any further. So they cut him.

“There are (performance) things that go beyond batting average and field percentage,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo said “no singular incident” contributed to Dukes being released, a comment echoed by team president Stan Kasten in a statement. Kasten also said people who think otherwise “don’t know what they’re talking about” - a tacit rebuke of former general manager Jim Bowden, now an analyst for XM and Fox Sports who tweeted this morning that Dukes had been cut because of his “latest incident” and the Nationals enacted their “zero tolerance” policy with the outfielder, who had a history of legal troubles before he came to the Nationals.

But when the Nationals weighed everything, they felt they would gain more from platooning a combination of players in right field and removing Dukes from their clubhouse than they would by keeping him in the lineup. If that doesn’t work, it’s possible they could pursue a player like free agent Jermaine Dye, though Rizzo said this morning the Nationals have not discussed Dye internally.

For now, though, they’re confident enough in what they have to think it’s a better combination, on the field and in the clubhouse, than Dukes would be.

“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 move caught most Nationals players by surprise; several of them said they were shocked by the move, and outfielder Roger Bernadina said he never had any issues with Dukes.

“For me, he was always cool,” Bernadina said. “I never had a problem with him.”

But Bernadina’s opinion wasn’t uniformly held around the clubhouse; a number of veteran players have privately expressed displeasure with some of Dukes’ on-field behaviors, whether it was taunting fans at Shea Stadium in Sept. 2008, arguing with then-manager Manny Acta on the field earlier that season, showing up minutes before batting practice or refusing to talk to reporters about a mistake he’d made in a game.

The release ends two years of the Nationals’ work with Dukes; though they had a personal adviser on hand for him the last two seasons, they felt he had moved far enough past the legal problems he’d had with the Tampa Bay Rays that he didn’t need the extra help any more. But he still wasn’t a popular player in some corners of the clubhouse, and still hadn’t figured out how to hit (or at least lay off) breaking balls consistently.

For the Nationals, that was enough to part ways with Dukes and the enormous potential which, in his time in Washington, never became anything more than that.

“That’s a tough one,” Riggleman said. “It’s been several days of looking at our club and saying, ‘You know what? We like some other options in right field, really.’ ... We feel we can man right field with some players that give us a better chance to win ballgames, and that’s basically it.”