Lots of intrigue about Elijah Dukes -- what kind of shape he's in, how he's looking thus far -- and rightfully so. Of all the players in the Nationals' lineup, Dukes is perhaps the only one with the ability to transform into something several levels better than it is now. He's got the power and the knowledge of the strike zone to be a potent No. 5 hitter in the Nationals' lineup, but as of yet, he hasn't put it all together.
Dukes still has never played more than 107 games in a season, or hit more than 13 homers in a year, slowed down by injuries in both of his years with the Nationals. He's arbitration-eligible after this season, and knows what kind of financial flexibility that could give him. For Dukes, there's plenty at stake this season.
So far, he's looked impressive in batting practice, routinely launching balls over the left-field fence. But the real test will begin later this week, when Dukes start facing live pitchers -- and seeing breaking pitches.
That's been Dukes' biggest problem at the plate, and if he can fix it, it could be the key to Dukes finally putting together a big season. He was planning to play in the Dominican Winter League this year to work on handling curveballs and sliders, but those plans were scuttled when his father died and Dukes stayed in Tampa with his mother, Phyllis.
But Riggleman said Dukes has put aside any concerns about his conditioning by coming to camp in good shape, and is anxious to see if the right fielder can solve the breaking ball.
"He's really got good knowledge of the strike zone," manager Jim Riggleman said. "If he swings at a pitch that's not a strike, it's generally a breaking pitch he didn't recognize early enough. That'll be the thing, if we can get him slowed down and trusting himself that he doesn't have to jump out there too quick. It gives him a little more time to analyze what it is. Is it a fastball or a slider?"
Dukes has been working closely with hitting coach Rick Eckstein this spring. When it comes to handling breaking balls, though, there's not much the Nationals can do with him to replicate seeing them in the course of a game.
"Maybe I can be that guy that consistently hits .300 or hits 30 (homers)," Dukes said. "(Eckstein) sees it, and I know I can do it. So I'm just trying to get it out of me, and let Eckstein get it out of me, too."
This is the first time in the 25-year-old's three years with the Nationals that he's entered the spring without serious competition for a starting spot. He knows he will be the Opening Day right fielder, and he's seen Riggleman display some faith in him to hold down the job.
It's meant a more relaxed, more confident Dukes this spring, and he's the first one to acknowledge the effect of a more stable foundation on his outlook.
"I don't have to feel like I've got a target on my back anymore. Maybe over the years of not getting in trouble, that's helped a little bit, too."
As the Nationals have taken the reins off Dukes -- letting his personal adviser go and allowing him more freedom with the media -- they've seen him open up to teammates, as well. He talked Monday about spending more time with Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn, and even late last season, Dukes was a more approachable presence in the clubhouse.
All the pieces seem to be falling into place as he matures, and Dukes, who is making $440,000 this year, stands to get a substantial raise in arbitration after the season. But much of that money is still tied up in his ability to figure out a curveball.
"You hate to get caught up in arbitration and free agency years and all that, but they're all aware of when they're becoming eligible for arbitration," Riggleman said. "I know he feels like it's an important year. He wants to do some things for his family. It's important."