Within the last few minutes, the Nationals have reportedly cut Elijah Dukes. Ben Goessling of MASN Online reports that the release is not related to any off-the-field issues. Projected to start in right field, the news comes as a shock and leaves the Nationals' outfield in flux. Though he had struggled in the past with injuries and inconsistency, Dukes was a relatively cheap option, making essentially the league minimum while remaining a high-potential player based on his myriad tools. This is particularly surprising since the contract was signed just over a month ago.
Coming out of high school, Dukes was an incredible athlete and highly-touted prospect. A 3rd round pick of Tampa Bay, Dukes chose to pass up a football scholarship to North Carolina State University and sign with the Rays. Dukes displayed his tremendous talent and potential in his first major league at bat with a home run; however, his young career has been a one of highs and lows. In part because of his off-the-field issues (including three arrests), Dukes has been unable to perform successfully at the major league level for an entire season. Although he is often described as a true five-tool player, his career .242 average is a testament to his inconsistency.
This move has made the Nationals' outfield situation extremely muddled. While Josh Willingham and Nyjer Morgan are solid, everyday starters in left and center field, respectively, the question of who will man right field becomes a serious issue. Of the team's current options, none is without considerable flaws. Willie Harris, in my opinion, would better serve the team as a utility man extraordinaire rather than an everyday player. Roger Bernadina has struggled throughout his young career with injuries and has yet to prove himself at the major league level. Chris Duncan is not even guaranteed to make the team and has managed only two hits in 21 at bats this spring. Justin Maxwell, a skilled defender with a questionable bat, is better suited to play center field; however, based on his major league experience last season, he may be forced to play in right. Ian Desmond seemed a potential alternative with his outstanding performance this spring, but general manager Mike Rizzo's assertion that the talented youngster would remain at shortstop this season closed the door on that option. It remains to be seen who will take Dukes' place, but what is clear is that whoever does will have as many - if not more - on-field question marks than Dukes did.