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Random Thoughts on Elijah Dukes

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Prospect Tidbit: Thinking about Elijah Dukes

As noted by readers in this diary entry, Baseball America just came out with their Top 20 prospects lists for the Southern League. I don't want to get into a critique of the list itself. There are some things I could nitpick, but the perfect prospect list has yet to be invented, and I write plenty of things that can be nitpicked, too. One thing that I do want to point out is the ranking of Tampa Bay prospect Elijah Dukes as just the number 20 prospect in the league.

Intuitively that seems much too low. Dukes has enormous physical talent, and certainly had a good year statistically. Rather than just attacking the ranking, however, I want to discuss Dukes and the role of makeup and "intangibles" in prospect analysis.

First, let's break Dukes down as a prospect.

Physically, Dukes has everything you could possibly want, being one of the best pure athletes in the minor leagues. He is strong. He is fast. He has a good arm. Dukes has all the physical tools.

Does he have skills? Certainly.

In Double-A this year, Dukes hit .287 with 21 doubles, 18 homers, 45 walks, 83 strikeouts, 19 steals in 28 attempts, in 446 at-bats. Good power/speed production, and in keeping with his previous performance. He's made major strides with his contact ability: he struck out 130 times in 383 at-bats in 2003, but hasn't broken 100 strikeouts since despite more playing time. At age 21, a normal growth curve would enable him to hit for power and average at the major league level, with a reasonable on-base percentage to go with his speed.

So we have a guy here with great tools and good performance. But then we come to the X-factor: personality and "makeup," as scouts put it. This can be broken down into several different components. A player's work ethic is certainly critical, and interestingly enough, Dukes has a reputation for making a good effort on the field. He plays hard and hustles most of the time. But the root of his problem comes from what the press refers to cryptically as "a problem with authority" and "anger management" issues. He argues with umpires at the drop of a hat. He gets ejected frequently. He isn't considered to be an especially supportive temmate. And he has legal problems, with numerous brushes with law enforcement during his high school days. This came to a head last winter when he was arrested for domestic battery after striking his sister during an argument.

Dukes comes from a very troubled background. His dad is in prison for killing a man, and Dukes' family life was about as chaotic as you can imagine.

I am not a behavioral determinist: I believe it is possible, with a great deal of effort, to overcome the negative effects of a troubled childhood. But it is not EASY, not by any means, and it takes the right combination of therapy, self-will, and even luck to overcome the disadvantages of a chaotic, violent past. Untying the knotted rope of early personality conditioning is very difficult even under ideal circumstances. The highly-competitive and emotionally-charged environment of professional sports makes this even more difficult.

To their credit, the D-Rays have refused to give up on Dukes and continue to provide him with counseling and anger-management training. Will Elijah Dukes always be an angry person? Probably. But if he can learn to control and channel that anger, learn how to USE it properly on the field rather than let it control him, he could blossom as a player and, perhaps, as a person.

Even recognizing how difficult this is on paper underestimates how hard it is in real life. Dukes has a huge challenge ahead of him, and the track record of players with similar problems isn't particularly encouraging.

How much should this impact his prospect status? Well, it's impossible to IGNORE it, certainly. Although Dukes has definitely improved as a player, how he responds to the challenge of Triple-A, and eventually Major League, competition, will depend on if he can get a hold of his emotions. The physical tools are here, the baseball skills are coming along nicely. But in assessing his worth as a prospect, we have to consider the personality factor. The Baseball America Southern League list with Dukes at 20th weights the personality factor quite strongly. Personally, I would have ranked Dukes higher than 20th, but not in the Top Ten.

More on the Southern League list in the comments section.