Arts & Entertainment, Sports

Picking Splinters: Dealing With Dukes

If this winter feels warmer to you, there's no need to blame global warming or El Nino. Instead the cause may lie in Nashville's Opryland Hotel, where baseball's so called “Hot Stove” is ablaze and the trade winds are fanning the flames to every major leage market.

The name generating the most heat at this year's Winter Meetings has been two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana. Not only is Santana's inclusion in the trade market causing a stir — but when the two biggest shoppers are the Yankees and Red Sox the recipe goes from spicy to something that requires a signed waiver before taking a taste. But Santana is just the start.

The available talent is plentiful, even after the Marlins dealt Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers, but every name comes with a price — and it's not always monetary. Yes, sir, rosters are changing in Opryland, but more interestingly, so are organizational philosophies, and that's what has me throwing some splinters into the roaring fire of the Winter Meetings.

Like many clubs throughout the majors, when it comes to personnel the Nats adhere to a philosphy that prizes talented young players. Now it appears Washington is subscribing to a philanthropic one as well.

In the past week, Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden has dealt minor league lefty Glenn Gibson to the Tampa Bay Rays (formerly the Devil Rays before the titular exorcism) for troubled outfielder Elijah Dukes. That's on top of the trade that brought Lastings Millege, he of the robust ego, to Washington. There is no truth to the rumor  that Steve Howe and Tim Raines have been signed to coaching positions. However, if the Nats can net Milton Bradley, the new outfield may be able to one-up the national fireworks display on July 4.

Since Dmitri Young turned around his life, and career, last season in Washington, it seems that the Nats' front office has opportunisticly tried to buy low on talented prospects with checkered histories. That's a reversal from the good character group Stan Kasten originally sought to build the team around, and it's a gamble the Nats need to pay off if Washington wants to preserve its family-friendly reputation.

While Milledge's rather robust ego isn't exactly an attractive trait, it isn't a prohibitive deterrent. Certainly not compared to the behavior of Dukes, who last year threatened to end the lives of his ex-girlfriend and children.

I believe in second chances as much as the next guy, and I believe that Bowden — who has been something of a father figure to the temperamental Jose Guillen — genuinely wants Dukes to turn his life around. I also believe that Bowden and the rest of the front office would like Dukes to hit 40 home runs. But the prospect of offensive production shouldn't necesitate a team to nurture a grown man back to the straight and narrow.

If Dukes can address the problems of his life it would be truly wonderful and I hope for everyone's sake that's exactly what happens. But this is a professional sports team we're talking about, not the Boys and Girls Club, not a 12 step program, not a rehabilitative service. It's great that Dmitri Young has offered to shepherd Dukes when he gets to D.C., but professional baseball players shouldn't have to monitor their teammates — teammates who are supposed to be adults. Players should be concerned with mechanics, not meltdowns.

Even if Dukes behaves on the short leash he's allegedly on, just having Dukes on the roster will generate distractions. If nothing else it has already invited scrutiny from the media. The Washington Times' Thom Loverro denounced the trade in his Tuesday column. The articles that introduced Dukes to D.C. all contained reports of a dubious past that includes child support lawsuits, restraining orders, a marijuana charge and the aforementioned death threat, the content of which the Washington Post printed in its Tuesday edition.

It might all be nothing. Dukes might be born again in D.C., buoying Washington with his bat and his story. But for now, it's going to be hard. It's going to be hard to ask teammates to act as baby sitters while breaking out of slumps. It's going to be hard for a manager to act as a mentor while monitoring his bullpen. And more than anything, it's going to be hard for a fan base to openly accept a man who threatened to kill a woman and her children.

Please don't misunderstand me. Reaching out to Dukes is a terrific thing, but helping a person fix their life is far more complex than fixing their swing. And if Young and Manny Acta can't corral the hot head that just landed in the Washington dugout, then bringing Dukes to D.C. could keep the heat on Bowden and Kasten all season long.

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Even if the Twins come back to the Yankees' offer of Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera and a mid-level prospect for Johan Santana, New York would best be served by walking away — even if that means Santana winds up with the Red Sox.

Let's say the Yankees did that deal. Now the Yankees have a hole in centerfield. Would they move Johnny Damon or Matsui out there? They could, but would they compromise themselves defensively when Aaron Rowand and Andruw Jones — and his 58-foot strike zone — are on the market? Suddenly the dollars are mounting up again.

It's not that money is a problem for New York, or that Santana wouldn't be worth the monster extension he'll command, it's that the freespending limits the team's option if players don't pan out as expected.

With a pitcher of Santana's caliber, you wouldn't think underperformance would be a problem. Then again, you probably wouldn't have thought that about Randy Johnson (2.60 ERA, 290 strikeouts prior to his first year in New York) or Kevin Brown (2.39, 185) either.

If the Yankees trade away two, possibly three (if Ian Kennedy is included), of their centerpieces, then they better be positive what they get in return will cure what's ailing this team for years to come. If Santana somehow stinks, they'll have dealt away their best bargaining chips only to be saddled by a big contract with reduced trade value, exactly the type of purgatory the youth movement philosophy was attempting to avoid.

Hang onto Hughes, keep Cabrera and stay the course with the current core of young talent.

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If I'm in the Twins camp, I would take the Red Sox offer for Santana that replaced pitcher Jon Lester with centerfield stud, and Beantown babe magnet, Jacoby Ellsbury. Is the deal that much better than the package built around Lester? Probably not. But the Ellsbury offer has the fringe benefit of including every single woman in Boston, as there's a decent chance they will all follow him to Minnesota.

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We can cross off the title of “Royals General Manager” from the list that includes Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster. Turns out the front office in Kansas City exists after all.

The Royals have officially resurfaced from a deep sleep that spanned every offseason from about the late 1980s until last year's enigmatic, but ultimately fruitful, signing of Gil Meche. This season it seems like the Royals have been involved with almost every free agent on the market — including Andruw Jones — and have already inked Jose Guillen.

It's great to see moribund franchises get back on their feet. I just wish the Florida Marlins would spend a few dollars to right their listing ship. I know that attendance stinks in Miami, but as it stands, the Marlins' roster comes in under $30 million. That figure also represents the amount of money the franchise receives from revenue sharing every year, meaning that the Marlins would actually make money in 2008 even if they didn't sell a single ticket.

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