Sunday, April 5, 2009

Dukes to the Bench

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.


Sean Hogan said...

Spring Training stats are worthless for the most part, but I think BB/K are always useful. If Dukes can't put the ball in play 43% of time in Spring Training, he's not ready to start, period.

I think he would be best off starting the year in AAA for a few weeks until his bat gets 100% ready and then he can come up and start.

Alex Danvers said...

Great post. I would guess that even Willingham is better than Kearns. Kearns would be a great 4th outfielder for a contender, and the Nationals have enough depth at OF that they shouldn't put up for less.

Will said...

Sean, Dukes' OBP of .386 says it all. He's completely capable of handling major league pitching; he's just going through a slump right now, and it's pretty tough to break out of a slump when you're sitting on the bench. Hanley Ramirez has batted .184 over the spring, but I don't see them naming Andy Gonzalez, who's been fantastic with an OPS of .932, as the Marlins starting SS. Similarly, this move makes no sense.

The thing that really bothers me about this is what Manny said, "After he led the outfielders in home runs, I think it would have sent the wrong message if we didn't give him the job." Basically, it wouldn't be fair to start Dukes over Kearns. But what I can't fathom is how Acta's somehow completely forgotten about the world pre-March 2009. On top of that, according to Acta's logic, how is it fair to start Milledge in CF? If Dukes has been "terrible", then how do you describe Milledge's .544 OPS this spring? Why aren't Justin Maxwell or Roger Bernadina starting instead of Milledge? Or why is the Nats' OF co-leader in HRs, Willingham, not in the starting line-up?

I guess I'll just have to hang on what Manny said after that sending-the-wrong-message bullshit: "at least to start the season." If Dukes isn't starting by May, we'll have a

Section 222 said...

I completely agree that Dukes should start. He won that job (and Kearns lost it) with his performance last year. But Dukes will get at bats, and if he gets untracked and starts showing what he is capable of, he'll play his way back into the lineup. And if Kearns cools down, which seems likely, he'll head for the bench.

The starting lineup on opening day isn't the biggest deal in the world. Remember who started in LF for us last year? - WMP.

Sean Hogan said...

OBP and AVG don't scare me in Spring Training...pretty much just K numbers. If he's getting blown away by all ST pitchers (and, remember, not all of them are ML quality), how is he ready to start?

Like I said, send him to AAA to let him straighten out his swing. I know I'm in the minority here, but how does that hurt?

I do think that if he's in ML he should be starting, because Dukes on the bench is a terrible idea. But out of him starting in ML and AAA right now, I would choose AAA.

An Briosca Mor said...

It's funny how so many of the people who use the claim that spring training stats are meaningless to argue that Dukes should get the nod over Kearns turn right around and bash Milledge based on his spring training stats. Has Acta completely forgotten about the world pre-March 2009 or not? Acta is no fool. When "the most talented player on the team" starts playing like he's the most talented player on the team, he'll be starting. Just you watch. And none of this BS about "oh, he can't break out of it while he's sitting on the bench." Last year he broke out of it while he was sitting on the DL. The bench is a lot more comfortable than the DL. For one thing, he can hit in the cage and at BP while he's on the bench. Make no mistake about it - even if Acta won't say it, this is a major test for Dukes. How he handles it will go a long way towards showing whether he'll have a long-term future as a big league player or not. This could be even better long-term for him and the team than if he started this season in the lineup and on a tear.

Steven said...

One of the points I didn't have time for when I wrote this last night is that I suspect this might be a situation where Manny is 'testing' Dukes, sending a message about his spring training focus or something.

If that's the case, again, I could understand it, and if the result is that Dukes gets his ass in gear and is starting in a week, then I'll be singing Manny's praises.

But something tells me that "challenging" and "testing" isn't the best way to motivate a guy like Elijah. He's been tested. This ain't shit. And if it becomes a battle over power with an authority figure, we're headed in the wrooooong direction.

John O'Connor said...

Section 222:

Actually, Dukes started in LF on opening day last year. He got hurt in the middle innings and came out of the game.

John O'Connor said...

The common thread regarding all roster moves is to showcase players the team can trade away for prospects.

They are starting Kearns, who is probably the outfielder they would most like to trade, rather than Dukes, the guy who has a chance to develop.

They made their bullpen decisions based on who had options, the point being thaty they didn't want to give any of their pitchers away for free, and instead are sending down Bergmann and Mock so they can keep all their "assets" for deals later.

I have to say that, as a five-year season ticket holder, it's a little depressing to see the team make decisions that are based on showcasing guys they want to dump rather than playing the guys who provide the best chance to win now and/or guys they are hoping to develop for the future.

I know part of The Plan is to acquire ever-more prospects, but don't we need to start giving MLB time to some of the prosepcts we have?

e poc said...

Didn't we all know that something infuriating was going to happen as soon as the team signed Dunn. It's not like this is surprising.

Steven said...

John--your point is right on, but I would add that the folly here is in thinking that a player's trade value is going to be substantially affected by what they do in a short stint. Do the Nationals really think that other teams don't understand the concept of sample size? Even if Kearns hits like Barry Bonds for a month, most teams are going to look at his full body of work going back 7 years and evaluate him no differently. So we can show he's healthy. That's why teams have physicals. I really don't think you get anything from this "showcase" strategy. We certainly didn't with Flop, Plod, and Fatsrada.

An Briosca Mor said...

You can't call it a "showcase strategy" when Kearns legitimately beat out Dukes for the starting job. (Or, when looked at another way, Dukes legitimately blew his shot at retaining the starting job.) The fact that they get to showcase Kearns for possible trades while he's playing well is just a bonus. And if Dukes's fragile psyche can't handle and recover from such a minor, short-term setback as this, wouldn't you rather find that out now than later? Dukes may indeed be the long-term solution here, but if he's going to be he needs to demonstrate the ability to bounce back from something like this rather than getting lost in a funk. Otherwise, he doesn't have any real long-term value.

This is different from the Lopez, LoDuca and Estrada "showcasing" situations in two major respects. (1) Those guys weren't playing all that well before they were "showcased", so it's hard to argue that they were winning a job, as Kearns is now. And (2) those guys weren't bumping anyone of consequence while they were being "showcased", which of course would have been reason for the bumped player to feel slighted. Dukes is being bumped now for a reason - namely that he lost the competition for his job - and he needs to learn how to deal with that and come back from it.

Will said...

ABM, work on your reading comprehension. I'm not saying Milledge shouldn't start, or Willingham should. I think it would be equally idiotic to bench Milledge because of a bad spring. I was merely pointing out the double-standard, hypocrisy, whatever you wanna call it of Acta's comments.
I said, "On top of that, according to Acta's logic, how is it fair to start Milledge in CF?
Manny said that based on how well Kearns had done in ST, it would be unfair to start Dukes with clearly inferior stats. I was simply stating, that just about every other player on the team has better stats than Milledge, so why is he holding a double standard for Milledge and Willingham. He's singling out Dukes, and I think singling out Dukes is really stupid. This guy did nothing but impress over half a season last year. Then suddenly, because he had 50ish bad ABs, he'd relegated to the bench? In place of a guy who's posted an OPS of .717 over the past two seasons?! It smacks of shortsightedness and stupidity.

ABM, answer me this: Hanley Ramirez had a terrible spring. He posted a .655 OPS. His back up, Andy Gonzalez posted a .932 OPS. If you were the manager of the Marlins, who do you start at SS? Do you "test" Ramirez and see what he's made of? Try to discover his real character?
Fuck that. This "testing" and "fragile pysche" is bullshit. The man earned the job. When it counts, Dukes has been by far and away a better, younger player than Kearns, and that's all that matters to me.

Will said...

Sorry, that came off a bit more abrasive than I intended.

An Briosca Mor said...

Will, did I respond specifically to any comment you made? I don't think so. Work on your own reading comprehension.