It's hard to imagine a decision that this team could make that would be less popular among the fans than benching Elijah Dukes for Austin Kearns. Dukes is hands-down the most talented player on the 25-man roster. It's not hard to imagine him being the best hitter on the team this year. His .264 / .386 / .478 line last year made him by far the most valuable hitter on the team. And he's an above average defender in right field, posting a career UZR/150 of +13.8. Oh, and he's only 24 years old.
So what in god's name are the Nationals doing benching him in favor of arguably the worst everyday right fielder in all of MLB in 2008?
The team will tell you that Kearns outplayed him this spring, which undoubtedly is true. Dukes has been terrible, striking out 22 times in 59 plate appearances en route to a .212 / .305 / .327 line. Kearns meanwhile has been knocking the cover off the ball to the tune of .279 / .436 / .581. The problem is that spring training stats are notoriously unreliable for evaluating players, especially veterans who have proven themselves (or not) at the big league level.
Perhaps the team is "showcasing" Kearns for a trade. I really hope this isn't the case, because I've seen more than enough of that over the last year, with Paul Lo Duca, Johnny Estrada, and Felipe Lopez all hurting the team by getting at bats in some totally pointless effort to convince teams that they should offer something of value.
I've argued that Kearns is nowhere near as bad as he was last year, and he isn't. Between the injuries and some bad luck, he had just about everything go against him, and I'd expect him to bounce back to a level where he's a credible below-average right fielder. But with Kearns's $8 million contract, no team is going to give us a bag of balls. If we ate the salary, then maybe, but we're still not going to get more than a middling prospect.
While I totally disagree with this move, I'm going to hold off on fully passing judgment, however. The team says Dukes will be the top back-up in all three outfield spots. That could easily give him 400 at bats and two or three starts a week. Giving Kearns the Opening Day start doesn't necessarily mean that Dukes is going to be a true bench guy.
But it's on Manny to make sure Dukes gets a ton of at bats, and he has to make it happen, because he's the only player in the entire organization young and talented enough to be an MVP on a championship team. They HAVE to play him.