The Nationals' decision to release Elijah Dukes on March 17 was, for all its overtones and interpretations, a baseball move in the team's mind. They saw a talented outfielder who had yet to live up to his much-chronicled natural abilities, still had trouble hitting a breaking ball and created some dissension in the clubhouse, and determined the cost outweighed the benefit.
What's yet to be determined is whether the Nationals have, as they believe they do, the options in the outfield to replace Dukes. But that isn't necessarily the same thing as replacing the production Dukes might have delivered if he'd ever put things together.
For all the talk about Dukes' physical gifts, it remains an open question whether he'll ever mine those talents for pure results in the majors. He certainly showed flashes of doing it, like when he hit 13 homers in 81 games in 2008, but from a value standpoint, the Nationals actually had a better alternative on the roster in 2008 and 2009: Willie Harris, who will get a fair amount of playing time in right as a possible replacement for Dukes.
Harris had the best year of his career in 2008, posting 13 homers, a .761 OPS and a 3.3 WARP. Dukes had an .861 OPS in 2008 and hit the same number of homers in 60 less games, but wasn't nearly as strong as Harris in the field, whose Ultimate Zone Rating as an outfielder over 150 games was nearly 20 runs better than Dukes' UZR/150. Dukes' WARP that year was 2.8.
Both players dipped in 2009 (Harris had a .235/.364/.393, a -9.2 UZR/150 in the outfield and a WARP of 1.0; Dukes was at .250/.337/.393, a -9.6 UZR/150 and a WARP of -0.1), but Harris was still better.
The issues, as I perceive them, with Dukes' release are these: The Nationals gave away a player who could turn into a star, when they could have done other things with him, and they don't have anything to replace him. The second point is true -- they could have optioned him to the minors. The first one, so far, hasn't come to fruition, and the third one is based on an assumption that the first one will come to fruition.
Right now, the Nationals have the players in-house to match Dukes' production. The question is, do they expect more from the position? Can Harris, Mike Morse and possibly Justin Maxwell deliver better production than Dukes for a full season? Based on Dukes' track record the last two seasons, the answer is yes; Harris has been healthier, played better defense and in some cases, matched his offensive output. The question becomes, would this have been the year Dukes put it all together, and if not, is there a way for the Nationals to get the production everyone expected (or at least hoped) Dukes would provide?
We'll find out in the coming weeks. Harris, for one, hasn't played much right field; Jim Riggleman said today he would try to get Harris a few more games there before Opening Day. Morse is in a prolonged slump after a hot start to the spring, and Maxwell is 4-for-44 in camp. There's a chance the Nationals could go after a player like Jermaine Dye, though I can't see them breaking the bank for a 36-year-old outfielder whose WARP was actually a tenth of a run worse than Dukes' last year.
But the outcry over Dukes' release is based more on what he could be than what he's been. Only time will tell if he puts it together for another team and gets Nationals fans pining for his return. The reason the Nationals believed they could live without him, though, is because he hasn't crossed that bridge yet. Now they'll have to find out if they can do it in other ways.