Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Focus on the Process

In times like this, when the Nationals do something that I disagree with (and I disagree with releasing Elijah Dukes--at minimum I would have sent him down to the minors if you must, but don't just cut him), I try to focus on the process rather than the outcome.

The team won't always do what I want, and the outcomes won't always be good. But if the team is at least gathering the right information, taking the right factors into account, considering all alternatives, and making decisions for sound reasons, then I can live with it.

Probably the quintessential example of bad process for the Nationals is keeping Jim Bowden on as GM after the team was sold to the Lerners. You can argue that Bowden was a good GM, and many of you did (you know who you are), but the truth is that Bowden kept his job because he had a cozy relationship with the owner's kid. I don't care if Bowden turned out to be Earl Weaver, Vince Lombardi, and Erwin Rommel rolled into one. Mark Lerner's personal feelings for Jim Bowden shouldn't even be a factor in the decision.
That's bad process.

As friend of FJB Rob Neyer wrote today, chances are that history won't remember the Dukes release as a big deal. Last season was a big step backwards for him. I would give Dukes maybe a 10% chance of making the Nationals regret this, and a 20% chance of thinking "wow, we dodged a bullet there." I guess that leaves 70% chance that he fades away like Glenn Gibson never to be thought of much again.

But still, I don't believe the Elijah Dukes decision was made for the right reasons or as a result of good process. I think Mike Rizzo decided before he even got this job that if he ever had the chance, he would dump Dukes (as well as Lastings Milledge, for that matter). Mark Zuckerman (kind of accidentally) nails it:
There's a reason a guy like Austin Kearns is kept on the roster an entire season despite his horrific production at the plate. Kearns was revered inside the Nationals' clubhouse for his work ethic, his attitude and his refusal to grumble over lost playing time.

And there's a reason a guy like Elijah Dukes is cut loose on March 17 even when he's got minor-league options and would have cost the organization less than one-fifth of what Kearns made a year ago.
And there's a reason why certain teams lose 100 games year after year after year. Bad decisions resulting from bad process.

The factors Mark Z. cites are all relevant. It's not like he asked his fiancee which guy was cuter and cut him to avoid competition. It's just painfully obvious that too much weight is being placed on clubhouse clubbiness, and not nearly enough on talent.

OMG lays out the comps between Dukes and the players we're likely to see in right this season and concludes, fairly indisputably, that Dukes is the better talent on the field. But the point doesn't end there. Because Dukes had options, you have to believe that he's less valuable than the least valuable outfielder anywhere in the organization. Worse than Willy Taveras, worse than Jerry Owens, worse than all the late-20s organizational filler players who have never appeared on anyone's prospect lists ever?

The key factor here wasn't whether anyone would trade for him. After all, if the Nationals called you up anxious to deal a guy like Dukes, wouldn't you assume that there was something you didn't know? It's that he has all-star tools, cost next to nothing, and had options. Unless he was really so disruptive in the clubhouse that he'd be an impediment even as a leftfielder in Potomac, there's no possible way this makes the team better. And we know how he'd handle a demotion. He handled it just fine last year with no incidents of any kind.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not making excuses for Dukes' bad behavior. He should have been more punctual. He should have used a condom. He should have paid his child support on time. He should have used a condom. He should have just flipped Nishea Gilbert the bird like a normal hot-head, not texted her a jpeg of a handgun. He should have used a condom.

But the team has made it perfectly clear that there was nothing Dukes did to make himself unemployable. (Riggleman: "Elijah was great. He's done his work. He's got no issues.") Rizzo just didn't like him and wanted him gone. Bad process.

As for the future, I do think Dukes will be back in the major leagues, probably soon. My guesses for where? 1. Chicago, South Side, which I think is both the most likely and the best fit. Grab him in deep fantasy leagues if that happens. 2. Chicago, North Side. This would be a disaster, but Jim Hendry's made this kind of mistake before, and failed to learn from mistakes other times. 3. Anaheim. I don't think it would work out long term, but they have a lot of faith in Mike Scioscia's ability to manage a clubhouse, and I bet they'd get a win or two out of him. 5. New York Mets. If no one else does, Omar will take the bait.

Finally--for the people who are applauding this new era of strict accountability in the Nationals organization, I wonder how you square that with the fact that Smiley Gonzalez, er Carlos Alvarez, is still drawing a paycheck? I mean, it's a bit of a non-sequitor, but if you think Dukes needed to be fired for his off-field issues and unreliability, shouldn't Alvarez be drawn, quartered, and his remains shot out of a cannon?


Anonymous said...

Steven, I get your point of view -- your Dennis Rodman example is a good one -- but I can't really agree. Rizzo definitely has a process, in the sense that he has a very clear view of what's needed for a guy to be a good ballplayer. And Dukes didn't have it. In Rizzo's eyes, Dukes wasn't doing anything to make himself a better ballplayer, or to make the team better, and he didn't want to wait around and see how much he might make it worse.

If you're saying Rizzo's criteria are out of whack -- he puts too high a value on character issues -- I get that too. But part of being a manager, a leader of any organization, is setting a tone. Being decisive about not taking crap is not an unimportant quality.

I recall watching Dukes in late 2008 and thinking that the guy had awesome talent and really could be special if he could harness it and be consistent. But Mike Rizzo has a lot more experience evaluating baseball talent than I do, and if he'd come to the conclusion that Dukes wasn't likely to get it together, then I can't say he's wrong to make the decision to cut Elijah loose.

I'm surprised that I feel so "old school" about this -- I was reading Bill James back in the 80s. But James acknowledges too that managing a baseball team is not just -- or even, not really -- about numbers, it's about managing, and leading, human beings. It's sad that the Nationals organization wasn't able to tap Dukes' potential, and maybe that is a failing of the organization. But we don't really know if anyone else would have done better.

Anonymous said...

Yes on Smiley.

Dukes will ever be more than a journey man AAA Willy Mo Type. He has the ability yes but not the approach needed to accept coaching.

Big loss here is for Dukes' extended family of kids, but Nats gave him every chance and I for one think they are better off fishing than cutting was just time to move on.

Anonymous said...


I have been thinking about your various comments on Rizzo over-emphasizing a "good" clubhouse, and I think, at the end of the day you are right and wrong.

I think that in building your team your fringe guys have to be guys with good clubhouse chemistry, hard workers who show up on time and get the job done with a minimum of fuss and bother. I think that guys with fringe talent have to make up for it with makeup.

I think that if you start applying those rules to the guys who produce (not just have talent but actually produce) you end up cutting off your nose to spite your face (that looks odd and is fairly disturbing when you actually write it out).

If Ryan Zimmerman is a "bad" guy you have to ride it out.

If Justin Maxwell is a "bad" guy he gets cut.

I think Rizzo decided, probably some time ago I agree, that Dukes was far more likely to be Justin Maxwell then Ryan Zimmerman.

Todd Boss said...

Two facts are inarguable w.r.t. Dukes:
1. he is and was a chemistry problem.
2. He was NOT producing at a level that was guaranteeing himself a starting job as a right fielder in the major leagues.

I have a bit of inside information about point 1, and the quotes from this person about Dukes essentially is that "he is a huge distraction" and that "most of the team can't stand him." Doesn't get any clearer than that.

It has been stated by many beat reporters that no trade could be worked out. And, I'm betting Rizzo didn't want to send him to AAA just to watch Dukes sulk and be an even worse cancer while playing in AAA with guys who were legitimately trying to get to the major leagues.

This absolutely improves the team; addition by subtraction. Plus, how hard is it going to be to find a guy who can beat his 93 ops+ and his negative UZR/150 ratings??

Deacon Drake said...

I think the clubhouse "character" that Rizzo is trying to cultivate will go a long way toward both developing young talent and filling in the gaps with free agents that WANT to play for the Nationals. Once that core of talent is there, then they may be more likely to take a risk and find a difference maker who may have a character issue.

Players with Dukes' potential are not extremely rare. But so many fail to put it together for more than a couple months at a time... for every Matt Kemp and Grady Sizemore, there are dozens of Terrmel Sledges and Terrence Longs.

I personally would have liked Dukes to get a longer audition, but if Rizzo feels he is Terrmel Sledge, why tempt fate?

estuartj said...

I think the RF job is Maxwell's to lose and I'd bet the conversation he's had with Rizzo have been about two key stats he need so keep it and succeed in '10, OBP and UZR. If he can get on base at .350+ and play stellar D he'll get 450+ PA to prove he's a big league starter.

El Rey said...

I will miss Elijah. This is shaping up to be a bad Nats season for me. I have some dental issues right now so I won’t be munching on peanuts or Cracker Jack for the first couple of months of the baseball season. Now, I will no longer be able to scream “Come on Elijah, I believe in your prophecy” when he comes to the plate. I hope some other team gives Elijah a chance even if it is in the minor leagues.

El Rey said...

I will miss Elijah. This is shaping up to be a bad Nats season for me. I have some dental issues right now so I won’t be munching on peanuts or Cracker Jack for the first couple of months of the baseball season. Now, I will no longer be able to scream “Come on Elijah, I believe in your prophecy” when he comes to the plate. I hope some other team gives Elijah a chance even if it is in the minor leagues.

Anonymous said...

Rizzo never liked Dukes that much in my opinion. How else does it explain Dukes not getting the job out of Spring Training last year or being sent down to AAA so that the Nats could protect their mediocre options like Belliard and Kearns.

Mark said...

Great piece of writing here. I couldn't agree more - everyone says nice things about Dukes (personality not a problem, was doing his work, great batting eye), and then they just release him. He really should have been sent to AAA and given time to work on laying off that curve in the dirt that he likes to swing at. At some point, he either works into better baseball skills or doesn't.

My main problem with the Nats doing this is that they do it without having a viable back up plan in place. Morse, Harris, Mench, Maxwell, Bernadina and Duncan? Ugh.

And one error in your article - if Kearns made $8 million last year, and Dukes was going to make $444K, that means Dukes would have earned 1/18th of Kearns' 2009 salary.