The Brighter Side of Elijah Dukes
Just what does Tampa Bay have in prospect Elijah Dukes? That is a question that the Rays' management is likely asking. The club is blessed with outfield depth, including Dukes (3rd round pick 2002), Rocco Baldelli (6th overall pick 2000), Carl Crawford (2nd round 1999), and Delmon Young (1st overall 2003).
Both Baldelli and Crawford have secured themselves as mainstays in the Tampa Bay outfield. Young's future as an elite player is often a foregone conclusion by many, as the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft. So again I ask the question: What does Tampa Bay have in Dukes?
Dukes started off his major league career with fireworks - fitting considering the troubled outfielder has a history of on and off-field eruptions. This season, Dukes began the year by hitting homers in both of his first two games - and in Yankee Stadium no less. The dingers came against Carl Pavano and Scott Proctor.
Obviously he has talent but Dukes' lack of discipline has been well-documented since he was signed out of a Florida high school in 2002. According to prospect expert Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus, Dukes attended the same high school as Dwight Gooden, Carl Everett and Gary Sheffield. His personality certainly fits in with those three players (as well as Milton Bradley, who attended high school in California), all of whom have had run-ins with the law, umpires, teammates and/or Major League Baseball. But, in my opinion, the media has spent enough time dwelling on Dukes' failures or shortcomings.
Dukes could very well have just as much talent as Sheffield. However, whereas Sheffield dominated immediately in pro ball as a 17-year-old, Dukes had to work at translating his raw athletic ability (he was a top high school football player) into baseball skills.
After signing late in 2002, he made his debut as a 19-year-old in the South Atlantic League (A-Ball), and struggled by hitting .245/.338/.366. Dukes also walked 45 times and struck out 130 times. On the positive side, he swiped 33 bases in 44 attempts.
Dukes began the next season back in the South Atlantic League and improved significantly. In his return engagement, he hit .288/.368/.423 in half a season before a promotion to High A-Ball in the California League. Dukes showed that he was indeed a superior athlete and dedicated to his craft as he improved to .332/.416/.540.
The following year, in 2005, Dukes made what many consider to be the toughest jump in baseball as he went from A-ball to Double-A ball in the Southern League. Dukes did not struggle, though, and hit .287/.355/.478. It was good enough to earn him the 5th best prospect ranking in the Rays' system by Baseball America.
The supposedly cantankerous Dukes landed in the International League (Triple-A) in 2006, one step away from realizing his dream of playing in the Major Leagues. In 80 games, he hit .293/.401/.488 and walked 44 times while striking out only 47 times.
Someone forgot to tell Dukes that baseball was supposed to get harder - not easier - the further he advanced through the ranks. In all, Dukes has shown remarkable improvements since beginning his pro baseball career as a promising, but raw, prep athlete.
One part of Dukes' game that has not improved is his base stealing, which has regressed in each of his four minor league seasons from 33 to 30 to 19 to nine. His weight also increased from 220 in 2004 to a reported 240 in 2007 and he was noticeably thick around the middle in the Rays' second series of 2007 against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Despite that, Dukes has had a solid beginning to his major league career, although he is not guaranteed a starting role with Crawford, Baldelli and Young ahead of him. Slugger Jonny Gomes is also in the crowded outfield mix.
Game breakdown (through April 8): April 2 1-for-3 w/ HR, BB, SO April 5 1-for-3 w/ HR, BB, SO April 6 2-for-4 April 7 0-for-1 April 8 0-for-2 w/ 2 BB and a SO
Dukes' two homers came to left field and right-center at Yankee stadium. As a right-handed hitter, Dukes showed good pull power against Pavano but he shown the ability to hit for power the other way against Proctor. He hit a third flyball in the series to the edge of the warning track in right field. In his second series against Toronto at home in The Trop, Dukes hit his two singles to left field.
In a very small sample it appears Dukes has more power against right-handers but his Triple-A numbers do not bear that out. In fact, based on his 2006 numbers he is equally talented from both sides of the plate:
Vs Left - .295/.433/.487 Vs Right - .293/.388/.488
The issue that sets Dukes aside from his talented Rays teammates is his patience and knowledge of the strike zone. Although he has no problems with swinging at the first pitch, Dukes appears comfortable working the count and waiting for "his pitch."
In a game against Toronto on April 8, Dukes faced former CY Young award winner Roy Halladay and did not look out of place facing one of the elite pitchers in the game.
In his first at-bat, Dukes coaxed a walk out of a pitcher who walked 1.39 batter per game in 2006.
Pitch 1 - Foul, center of zone
All four balls were just barely out of the strike zone, according to the MLB Gameday Tracker. Usually those types of calls go to the veteran pitcher but umpire Derryl Cousins did not see it that way. I think it is fair to say most young hitters (in their fifth MLB game) would not have had the confidence to lay off those pitches.
In his second at-bat, Dukes saw another four pitches from Halladay but grounded into a double-play.
Pitch 1 - Ball, high
In the sixth inning, Dukes saw another six pitches from Halladay (after Ty Wigginton, Young and Akinori Iwamura each swung and connected with the first pitch thrown), which resulted in another free pass:
Pitch 1 - Ball, inside
In the ninth inning, Dukes faced reliever Casey Janssen, who was in his second inning of work. Janssen has yet to allow a run in 5.2 innings this season (and has allowed only one hit and zero walks):
Pitch 1 - Swinging strike, center of zone
In total, Dukes saw 21 pitches in the game and swung at the first pitch twice but failed to put it in play. The two Jays' pitchers threw a total of 139 pitches, which means Dukes saw 15 percent of the total pitches thrown, while his other eight teammates saw the other 85 percent (or an average of 14.8 pitches each). Therefore Dukes saw about 6.2 more pitches than his teammates averaged in the game. In his first five games, including four starts, Dukes saw an average of just over three pitches per at-bat.
On thing that struck me while watching the game was that it felt like I was watching the New York Yankees bat when the Rays' heart of the lineup was at the plate. It was the same feeling that these guys were going to get a hit each time up to the plate and that it was going to take a miracle to get them out. Dukes played a big part in that with his more patient approach. They aren't there yet but Baldelli, Crawford, Young, Dukes and even B.J. Upton and Iwamura could one day strike fear in pitchers like Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui and Bobby Abreu.
Another big question surrounding the talent group of young players in Tampa Bay is whether or not the team can afford to keep them all together AND find some pitching. The Rays have done a solid job of locking their young players up so far:
The Rays have both Crawford and Baldelli locked up long-term for below market value and Iwamura could also turn out to be a smart investment. If Tampa Bay can lock up Young, Dukes and Upton to similar contracts (assuming they prove worthy in the next year or two), the club should have the money needed to secure some much-needed veteran pitching - assuming the ownership group is willing to invest in a winning ball club.
Although you cannot tell much from a five-game sample, if Dukes can avoid self-destructing on and/or off the field due to his volatile nature, he could be a very special player and a key cog in a talented young lineup. And Rays fans could see a winning season or two before 2010.
A special thanks to: Cot's Baseball Contracts for salary information as well as The Baseball Cube and MLB.com for statistical information.