Thursday, February 19, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | Elijah Dukes possesses just about every physical trait a manager or scout could want in a ballplayer.

He’s young. He’s athletic. He hits for power. He gets on base. He runs the bases well. He’s got a strong arm. He has the ability to take control of any game when he’s on the field.

There’s the caveat: when he’s on the field. For most of his professional baseball career, Dukes has been unable to keep himself on the field for long enough stretches to take full advantage of his immense skill.

Dukes’ inability to make it through an entire season on the field is a byproduct of both injuries (he made three trips to the disabled list in 2008) and off-the-field issues (several legal issues, plus some clubhouse incidents with teammates and coaches in the past).

The Washington Nationals, of course, would like nothing more than for the 24-year-old outfielder to play 162 games this season because the end result could be dramatic.

“There’s no doubt that if he stays out there every day, he has the ability to be an over 25-[home run], 100-RBI guy with a high on-base percentage, too,” manager Manny Acta said. “It’s a matter of him staying out there and being able to hold on to that job and have enough at-bats to help us out.”

Dukes reported to spring training Tuesday, and after two days of workouts he has already flashed glimpses of his natural talent, enough that it seems like he could be Washington’s starting right fielder on Opening Day.

But the Nationals’ outfield is a cramped place these days, and starting jobs are going to be hard to come by. The club added slugger Adam Dunn (who also could play first base) last week and corner outfielder Josh Willingham in November. The returnees are center fielder Lastings Milledge, who had a strong 2008, Austin Kearns, Willie Harris and Wily Mo Pena.

So Dukes, though he was perhaps the club’s best all-around player at times last season, knows he’s not guaranteed anything.

“I’ve got to get a job first,” he said Wednesday. “I’m still competing right now.”

Dukes is competing on any number of fronts. Not only is he trying to win a spot in Washington’s starting lineup, but he’s also trying to stay healthy for a full season. And he’s trying at long last to overcome the off-the-field incidents that have stunted his on-field progress for years.

This offseason saw Dukes nearly get sentenced to 90 days in a Tampa, Fla., jail for failing to pay more than $40,000 in child support and alimony to his estranged wife. Behind in his payments for more than three months, he finally met a court-imposed deadline by three minutes.

Asked on Wednesday how much of a distraction his off-field issues were this winter, Dukes replied: “All right, I’m done. That’s it. You ruined it.” He then walked away from the group of reporters interviewing him.

Those kinds of interactions with media members are just one reason some members of the Nationals organization question whether Dukes has grown enough in his year-plus with the club.

The franchise’s front office has gone to great lengths to keep Dukes insulated from the public. A member of the public relations staff is required to arrange all interviews with Dukes. (Reporters are free to approach any other player on the roster on their own.)

A person with the team close to Dukes believes the outfielder has done little in the last year to accept responsibility for his actions, though the outfielder does now understand the consequences of those actions.

Dukes understands the importance of the upcoming season in the greater scope of his career. He will be eligible for arbitration next winter, and only a strong showing on the field will allow him to earn his first big payday as a big leaguer and help alleviate his other financial obligations.

He also knows he enters 2009 in better standing than he did when he first arrived from the Rays a year ago, having built up strong relationships with a number of teammates. That made his arrival to spring training this week enjoyable.

“When you get to know people, it feels a lot better to play with them,” he said. “Once I got a little bit comfortable, I started feeling better about myself.”

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