Elijah Dukes for Centerfield?

The Nationals inexplicably released Elijah Dukes today. The Mets' outfield is seemingly "settled" with Bay-Pagan-Francoeur set to be the opening day starters, but any team expecting to break camp with Gary Matthews Jr. has room for one more talented outfielder. Dukes could play any of the three outfield positions in the time Beltran is injured and has the bat to start at either corner. Angel Pagan and Jeff Francoeur project about equally in rightfield (Pagan 50th percentile being better, Francoeur's upside and downside being more extreme) and the Mets have clearly committed to the younger Francoeur in right. 

Thus, my thinking is a Bay-Dukes-Francoeur outfield until Beltran returns. At first sight, that alignment might seem like defensive suicide, but Dukes is pretty athletic and probably better than his statistically insignificant -22.2 UZR/150. Besides, Pagan is no Carlos Beltran out there. CHONE projects a .354 wOBA for Dukes and a .334 wOBA for Pagan, which over the 150 PA Beltran projects to miss equals a few runs. If Beltran missed extended time, however, the difference would obviously be much more significant. More importantly, perhaps, Pagan (or Dukes) would replace Matthews on the bench, which could be worth a whole win itself, depending on how poorly you project Little Sarge. 

As a hitter, Dukes' potential rivals that of any Mets prospect. He is just 25 and one year removed from a .382 wOBA, which is better than all but one Met's (Beltran) mark last season. His plate discipline has always been extremely advanced and he has plus-plus raw power. Not only could he replace Beltran in the field, but his bat would slot nicely into the third spot in Jose Reyes' absence. 

Elijah Dukes could also be an important part of the Mets long term plans. Jason Bay and Jeff Francoeur are not the soundest long-term solutions for the corners, Bay because of his knee and shoulder injuries, Francoeur for a million other reasons. Granted, Dukes has had some notorious health and personal problems of his own. Yet, it's been nearly three years since any significant incident for Dukes. The Nationals swear his release was solely a baseball decision; Jim Riggleman spoke highly of him as a teammate. Regardless, it's not as if the Mets would suddenly be in a corner if they became concerned with Dukes' personal behavior. They would not have to trade him for a Carlos Silva contract, like the Cubs with Milton Bradley or pay him deferred money until 2035, as the Mets still do for Bobby Bonilla. It is a low-risk, high-reward signing with the rare potential for immediate payoff.

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