In the wake of his surprise release from Washington last Wednesday, it may be time to wonder if Elijah Dukes' major league career could be finished. The outfielder's legal and personal problems have been well-documented, but Dukes had seemingly straightened himself out since being dealt from Tampa Bay to Washington in December 2007. Over the winter, the Nationals decided that the services of James Williams (an advisor hired by the club to watch over Dukes) were no longer needed, which seemed to be the final sign that Dukes was ready to be a regular major leaguer.
Dukes had been dealing with a knee injury and had struggled at the plate and in the field during spring training, but according to MLB.com's Bill Ladson, Washington GM Mike Rizzo said that the move had been in the works for a while: "This was not a knee-jerk reaction on several Spring Training at-bats. We spoke about this throughout the winter internally." Given that the Nats awarded Dukes the starting right field job before spring training began, this statement seems curious. Rizzo stressed that Dukes' release was a baseball-related decision only, but Ladson noted that Rizzo also said the team would now be "a more cohesive, united group."
In 1879 minor league plate appearances over six seasons in the Rays and Nats' systems, Dukes hit .280/.369/.451 — numbers that showed promise that he could develop into a solid major leaguer, especially when he delivered an .864 OPS in 334 plate appearances with Washington in 2008. That OPS dropped to .729 last season as Dukes battled a number of injuries and couldn't stay consistent at the plate or in the field (a -9.6 UZR/150 in the outfield according to Fangraphs).
This drop in performance, combined with Rizzo's claim that he couldn't find a trade partner for Dukes, could mean that Dukes' extra baggage has finally outweighed his potential. (Or, it could simply mean that clubs just wanted to wait for Washington to release Dukes, rather than give up a player for him.) It will be interesting to see which, if any, team gives Dukes one final chance and signs him to a minor-league contract. At the very least, Dukes should catch on with an unaffiliated minor league club by the summer and have try to prove himself worthy of the big leagues on the independent circuit.