Dukes should start, not sit

April, 6, 2009
04/06/09
1:51
PM ET
Dave Cameron on what looks like a truly odd move:

    Even with the GM having resigned in disgrace and promises of a new organization going forward, the Nationals have managed to screw it up. Elijah Dukes, the best player on the team, is not in the line-up today. He's not injured. He's not being punished for an off the field transgression. He just had a bad spring, and Austin Kearns had a good spring, and that was enough for [Nationals manager] Manny Acta to decide that Kearns should get the first chunk of the playing time pie that will be split up amongst the crowd of outfielders the Nationals have.

    Dukes had a .382 wOBA last year to go along with a UZR/150 of +13.7. In about 60% of a season's worth of playing time, he was worth 2.9 wins to the Nationals, which put him on a +5 win pace over a full season. Five win players go to the all-star game, sign really big contracts, and become heroes to their fans.

    Dukes will spend Opening Day on the bench.

    I like Kearns as much as (probably more, actually) the next guy, but he's not Elijah Dukes. He's got some rebound potential and could be a nice role player on a team that needs a good defensive OF who can hit a bit, but he's an expiring contract with no real future in Washington. He's not a franchise cornerstone. He's not even someone who will be with the organization next year.

    Seriously, Washington, you have a 24-year-old coming off a .382 wOBA and a +13.7 UZR/150. I don't care if he went 0 for 60 in spring training - you should play him whenever he's healthy. This isn't the kind of talent that you ask to share playing time, especially not with the likes of Kearns or Josh Willingham.

    Happy Opening Day, Nationals fans. Hope you weren't planning on seeing the team's best player.

Look, I'm no bigger on spring training stats than Cameron is. Dukes batted .212 in 52 at-bats this spring and homered just once, and those numbers probably don't mean anything … probably.

But what if there were some off-the-field transgression we don't know about? What if Dukes came to camp overweight? What if he had showed little enthusiasm about getting his work done during spring training? What if he just didn't seem to give a tinker's damn?

We've a tendency to think -- especially these days -- that we have perfect knowledge. We don't. As anyone who has worked inside baseball can tell you, for every odd thing we hear about, there are a dozen we don't.

I don't mean to excuse Manny Acta for what seems a very strange decision. I think he's probably just making a mistake that will quickly become apparent. But I think we have to at least acknowledge the possibility that he has a good reason for doing what he's doing. And someday maybe we'll know for sure.

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