Dammit all, I was doing so well ignoring Spring Training. The scores don't mean anything because half the players won't see a major league roster this season. The stats don't mean anything because the players are working on things rather than trying to hit the ball, score runs or get batters out. Aside from overwrought "Ian Desmond for Opening Day shortstop" movement, (which conveniently ignores the whole "spring training stats are meaningless" thing) there hasn't really been any reason to follow the Nats too closely.
Until today, when out of the clear blue sky the Nats released presumptive Opening Day right fielder Elijah Dukes with a terse statement. Not traded, not optioned to minor league camp... released. Here's a list of guys who have been released by the Nationals this spring: Shawn Estes, Ron Villone, Eddie Guardado, Logan Kensing, Elijah Dukes. One of these things is not like the others, and it ain't Kensing.
When the Nats released Everyday Eddie Guardado after over-hyping his minor league contract and NRI earlier in the offseason, there was a minor groundswell of chatter around the Natmosphere. How could Mike Rizzo cut loose a guy who was previously touted as a mentor, clubhouse guru and stabilizing force after two bad innings? Though I resisted the urge to publish it at the time, (see above re: ignoring Spring Training) here's my quick hitter on the Guardado kerfluffle:
Eddie Guardado's release proves that Mike Rizzo is the second worst General Manager in Washington Nationals history. When Jim Bowden went dumpster-diving for a washed up reliever on a minor league contract with a spring training invite, he stuck with him for at least a dozen early season bullpen appearances. Mike Rizzo knows nothing about that kind of commitment to a bit.
The popular reaction to Guardado was way overblown, but the reaction to Dukes' release may be, if anything, too understated. Rob Neyer has a thoughtful post on why this probably isn't nearly so bad as it looks, and I don't disagree with his analysis. Dukes did seem to be regressing, was chronically bothered by nagging lower body injuries and while still young-ish he wasn't really a prospect anymore.
Still, to completely jettison a 25 year-old one year removed from a great season while he still has a minor league option remaining is bizarre and worthy of additional investigation. While steadfastly insisting that this was a pure baseball decision, Rizzo cited "clubhouse matters" and "chemistry" issues surrounding Elijah. OF Justin Maxwell likewise alluded to Dukes-related
If "toolsy" was watchword of Jim Bowden's tenure as GM, "chemistry" has been Rizzo's guiding star. From ripping Stephen Shell's aura to selling low on mercurial outfielder Lastings Milledge Rizzo seems to have an exceptionally low tolerance for anyone who disrupts his cherished clubhouse vibe. Fans who disparaged Bowden's penchant for valuing potential and flash over performance and results may find that Rizzo's yen for solid, steady reliability isn't the key to a championship either.
You know who has good chemistry? Winning teams. You know who has bad chemistry? Losing teams. If the Nats fought, bitched and backstabbed their way to a Wild Card berth, that'd be fine by me. On the other hand, a united, cohesive group of guys pulling together professionally for a 70 win season? Pass. Rizzo says this is a baseball decision, which means that he thinks starting Mike Morse, Justin Maxwell or Roger Bernadina in rightfield will make the Nats a better baseball team than they were with Dukes. I'm not sure I believe him.
Postscript: If this move has anything to do with getting Ian Desmond regular at-bats as a rightfielder then Rizzo, Riggleman and Kasten should join Dukes on the unemployment line tomorrow. If Desmond is one of the 25 best players on the team the Nats should make a place for him on the infield. If they need to release or bench somebody to make that happen, well, that's a baseball move. Otherwise Mike Rizzo is a really bad liar.