Last Wednesday, Elijah Dukes was cut by the Nationals. The same Elijah Dukes that the organization was hoping to be their starting right fielder for the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The Nationals felt that he was never going to live up to his potential, that the league had caught on to his weaknesses (see: breaking ball), and that he was somewhat of a distraction in the clubhouse. The timing was strange with the season so close, but the Nationals must have felt that they had viable options for the position already in camp. The move begs one to question what the Nationals will do now in right field?
The first and most obvious choice is 31-year-old utility man Willie Harris. In two seasons with the Nationals, Harris has been a spark plug for the team, playing nearly the whole field and providing incredible hustle on a nightly basis. While Harris' defensive abilities in centerfield came under question last season (-6.9 UZR), he has the ability to be an above average defender in the corner OF positions. The problem with playing him in right field is his lack of experience (10.0 total innings in right) and average arm strength. And while he may be able to field like an everyday right fielder, he sure will not hit like one. His combined line for the previous two seasons has been .243/.354/.406, nowhere near what the average MLB right fielder produces at the plate. Compounding the problem is Harris' splits against left-handed pitchers in his career (.201 AVG) and in 2009 (.121 AVG).
As a local product out of UMD, Justin Maxwell has had his supporters within the Nationals fan base. Maxwell, a toolsy outfielder, is one of the remaining traces of Jim Bowden's tenure in DC. He has great speed and athleticism to go with good power, but he has been greatly hampered by a monstrous strikeout percentage in the upper levels of the minors and in the majors (31.1% SO in MLB career). He has shown flashes of brilliance at time, like his walk grand salami to end the season last year or his incredible wall grab against the Orioles, but he has not been able to hit consistently. He had a better overall line than Harris last season (.247/.343/.449) in less plate appearances, but has been having a horrid spring training, only hitting .093 with 18 strikeouts. The Nationals were hoping that Maxwell would separate himself from his struggles and win the job outright this spring, but he has done exactly the opposite and will start the season in Syracuse.
The third legitimate option is Mike Morse. I wrote a while ago that Morse's value was as a utility man off the bench and that he had limited defensive value as an outfielder. This is still the case but the problem is that all the other candidates to fill the RF spot likely have that same ceiling. The Nationals like Morse's bat and he has a fantastic line against lefties (.324/.376/.449), but playing him in right field will present a defensive liability that the team was looking to avoid this year. Anyone that watched the spring training game against the Yankees would be able to realize the Morse is not yet comfortable in right, where he made two critical misjudgments on fly balls. There may be some improvement as he gets more reps, but the Nationals would have to endure the growing pains if they decide to field him out there.
After Morse, there are guys like Roger Bernadina, Chris Duncan, Willy Taveras, and Kevin Mench that could also see time in Elijah Dukes' former position. Bernadina, who suffered an ankle injury last season, is most likely fighting for the fourth outfielder position. He has very good speed, can play all the outfield positions, and has shortened his swing over the past two seasons resulting in more contact. Willy Taveras fits that same bill and provides six seasons of major league experience.
The obvious answer for the Nationals is a platoon until they find a more suitable option. While Willie Harris will probably get the initial shot to win the spot, Mike Morse will get a lot of the chances against left-handers. The 32-year-old Kevin Mench will try to break back into the league after having a rough season with the Hashin Tigers last year. If he can find his groove again, he may be part of a possible platoon down the road with a career line against LHP of .299/.358/.542 (his numbers have not been close to that since 2007). Chris Duncan is another reclamation project that could see eventually see time against RHP with is line of .270/.366/.485, but he lost his swing last year and has been working with Eckstein to find it again. Then there is the free agent path with Jermaine Dye. The Nationals have not expressed much interest in Dye and he has been one of the worst defensive outfielders the past few seasons, but he still has good power in his bat (27 HR, 19 2B last year).
The Nationals certainly have a lot of options for RF in the wake of the Dukes release, but none of them are very good options. Look for a platoon of Harris and Morse to start the season, with lots of tinkering by Riggleman as the season progresses.
Phil Naquin is a guest writer for The Nats Blog who will be be appearing weekly with analysis of the Washington Nationals using sabermetrics, pitch f/x tools, and scouting observations. He also runs a blog, Half Street High Rise