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The Lost Potential of Elijah Dukes

Elijah Dukes has been arrested yet again. From the AP (via ESPN.com):

TAMPA, Fla. — Authorities say former Major League Baseball player Elijah Dukes has been jailed in Tampa on charges related to allegedly failing to pay child support.

Hillsborough County jail records show the one-time outfielder for the Tampa Bay Rays and Washington Nationals was arrested Monday on contempt of court charges. He remained in jail Tuesday.

The Rays have had quite the stock of young outfielders roll through their farm system. Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton have roamed the Trop in Rays uniforms. Rocco Baldelli had star potential before mitochondrial issues derailed his career. Josh Hamilton become one of the game’s best story in Cincinnati and then Texas, and Delmon Young is now a major part of the Minnesota Twins outfield.

Dukes was a prospect on the same level of those players. Every scouting report noted Dukes as an elite athlete with the bat to back it up. Dukes struggled in his first year in the minors – probably to be expected of a 19-year-old in A ball – but after that, Dukes put up an .830 OPS at every level with a combination of solid discipline and good power.

But every scouting report also noted his makeup issues. As much as his talent warranted unbridled optimism, his off-field issues loomed as a constant limit. Prior to reaching his Major League debut in 2007, Dukes had already been arrested multiple times. Dukes was also ejected five times in the 2005 season and, in 2006, received a combined 35 games worth of suspensions from the International League and the Tampa Bay Rays organization.

Dukes struggled in his first MLB stint with Tampa, putting up a .190/.318/.391 (.191 BABIP) line in 220 plate appearances. That performance is not as terrible as the batting average makes it look, but it is also certainly not the way a top prospect hopes to enter the Major Leagues, as Dukes finished the year with -0.2 WAR. He was eventually listed by the Devil Rays as day-to-day for “personal reasons” in mid-June, and placed on the inactive list for the rest of the season by the end of the month, effectively ending his season, and as it turned out, his time with the Rays organization.

Rays GM Andrew Friedman said that the time on the inactive list was meant to “take some time away from the field and to focus on his personal life, re-evaluate everything, and most importantly allow him an opportunity away from the spotlight.” Apparently, the Rays weren’t willing to go forward with Dukes in the organization. They traded him away to the Washington Nationals for Glenn Gibson, a left handed minor leaguer who has, as of this season, yet to pitch above A ball.

The Rays shot up to contention, the playoffs, and eventually the World Series in 2008, but Dukes had his own breakout year in Washington. In 334 plate appearances, Dukes posted a spectacular .264/.386/.478 (.323 BABIP) line while playing solid defense in the corners for the Nationals. Dukes walked in 15% of plate appearances and showed power, putting up a .231 ISO. Overall, Dukes’s season was worth 2.9 WAR in a mere 334 plate appearances, making him easily the best player on the Nationals roster on a per-game basis. That kind of pace equated Dukes with all-stars like Evan Longoria and Joe Mauer. Unfortunately, injuries limited Dukes’s on-field time, as he missed games due to hamstring, knee, and calf injuries to his right leg.

Even with the injuries, it’s hard to deny the merit of the performance we saw from Dukes in 2008. Despite that, Dukes spent opening day of 2009 on the bench, a decision which Dave tore apart at the time. For whatever reason, be it nagging effects from the injuries or mental issues or simply regression, Dukes couldn’t maintain the production that had Nationals fans and baseball observers alike chomping at the bit to see more of the outfielder in 2009. Instead, Dukes put up a meager .250/.337/.393 (.291 BABIP) line with poor defense in right field, finishing below replacement level yet again. By the time the 2010 season and another chance at star-level performance would come around, Dukes was released by the Nationals.

Dukes hasn’t played professional baseball since then. One has to imagine that the loss of his father to cancer merely months after his release from jail affected Dukes through the 2009 season and through 2010 as he dealt with and was eventually cut loose by the Washington organization. Dukes will only be 27 in June of 2011, but the fact that not a single organization was willing to gamble on him probably signified the end of a shockingly and unfortunately short MLB career. If that was not yet the case, this arrest is probably the final nail in the coffin.

Elijah Dukes was a tremendous talent who should be entering the prime of his career this season. The word “disappointing” doesn’t even begin to sum up the situation. Unfortunately for all parties involved, the Elijah Dukes that showed so much promise is no longer a part of baseball, now replaced by occasional negative headlines and reminders of what should have been.