Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.
What are the ceilings for Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes?
In a scandal-riddled spring at Nationals camp, there is faint hope. The team signed Adam Dunn, traded for Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham and got Nick Johnson back healthy, at least for the moment. But while Jim Bowden has resigned as the franchise's general manager, his preference for quasi-clueless, exceedingly "toolsy" outfielders is still the thing that stands out most about the Nationals. And nobody embodies this better than Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes (though Wily Mo Pena, Corey Patterson and Willie Harris try hard).
It would be a mistake to paint Milledge and Dukes with precisely the same brush. While Milledge did some knuckleheaded things in New York to alienate his Mets teammates, he's never been a particularly bad citizen. Meanwhile, Dukes has been arrested at least three times for battery and assault, has fathered at least five children with four women and has had a restraining order filed against him by his wife because he allegedly threatened to kill her.
On the field, while Milledge was once known as a potential five-tool superstar, so far his talent has reared its head mainly on the base paths, while Dukes looks like more of a power prospect. But they've got a lot in common, too: Less than a year's worth of age separates them (Milledge turns 24 in April; Dukes turns 25 in June); they each were big-time prospects who flamed out for their original teams; and they each have considerably less rope than you might imagine such physically gifted kids might have on a team that doesn't figure to contend in 2009. Plus they both have cool names.
So how high are their respective ceilings? I prefer Milledge for '09 because I don't see a lot of other good options in center field on this team, while Austin Kearns is available to play right field if Dukes can't hang. I expect Milledge to flirt with at least 500 at-bats, and while he needs to show better on-base skills to be a viable top-third-of-the-order hitter in a good lineup (he walked only 38 times in 138 games last season), he's not likely to be a big drain in any particular fantasy category (he hit .268 overall last year, but .299 after the All-Star break).
It's not realistic to expect any more than 20 homers from Milledge at this point, but his fly-ball rate did increase as the '08 season went on, so I'm guessing he comes close to that number. And given that he stole 24 bases in '08, 30 doesn't seem ridiculous for '09. That kind of line -- .280, 20 HR, 75 RBI, 75 R, 30 SB -- is probably the best you can expect from Milledge, but if he makes that kind of improvement (not so much a giant jump forward as a healthy step) in his age-24 season, the Nats might really have something.
As for Dukes, despite all his behavioral problems his main issue in '08 was staying on the field: Thanks to a series of leg injuries, he wound up with only 276 at-bats. Over his first two major league seasons, then, Dukes has managed just 460 at-bats, so while the combined 23 HR, 65 RBI, 15 SB and 75 R over that span all look mighty tasty, the wise fantasy owner must worry that between injuries and behavioral issues, it's always going to be something with this guy.
Plus, knowing what Dukes' great big right-handed swing looks like, I have to say I consider him a potential candidate for a severe dip in batting average. He hit an acceptable .264 in '08 (and he had 50 walks in 81 games), but he also fanned 79 times. Let's face it: A rate of nearly a strikeout per game puts him in, well, Adam Dunn territory, and we all know Dunn's big fantasy drawback is that despite the 40 homers he gives you every year, you never know when he's going to rear back and hit .230.
I'm guessing Dukes maxes out around 400 ABs in '09, hits 20 dingers, drives in 60 and steals 10 bases, but that he hits a few points shy of .250. Now, his excellent raw gifts say he could do better, and if he gets an extra 100 or 150 plate appearances, you could be looking at an upside of 30 dingers. But, as with so many young hitters, I'm concerned that such a power spike would be accompanied by an equivalent dip in batting average, so tread more lightly on Dukes than you do Milledge.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.