"I don't know what to say. It felt a little funny," Dukes said told The Associated Press as he packed his car at the team hotel Wednesday afternoon. "I guess I wasn't expecting it. ... That's part of baseball. No big deal, no hard feelings. Just part of the game."
The 25-year-old Dukes was expected to be Washington's starting right fielder this season, but the Nationals announced the decision before their exhibition game at the Houston Astros.
Wednesday was the last day the Nationals could put him on waivers and pay him 30 days' termination pay at the minor league rate of his split contract instead of 45 days at the major league rate. So he is owed a little under $41,000, instead of about $109,000, which he would have been due had he been released later in spring training.
Manager Jim Riggleman, general manager Mike Rizzo and team president Stan Kasten all emphasized that the move was based on Dukes' performance and was not connected to any off-the-field issues. Rizzo, though, did say he thinks Dukes' departure improves the team's makeup.
"Elijah was great," Riggleman said. "He's done his work. He's got no issues. It's just a baseball decision."
Asked if any off-the-field incident could have precipitated his release, Dukes said: "Nothing happened. If something had happened, I'd know about it."
Indeed, while with Washington, Dukes appeared to have put his troubled past behind him. He had suspensions in the majors and the minors for various confrontations with umpires, coaches and teammates while in Tampa Bay's organization; arrests for assault and for marijuana possession; and paternity suits.
"He never got any of the bad headlines everybody feared when he came here, and I think he deserves credit for that," Kasten said in a telephone interview. "If anyone says there was an incident, that person has no idea what he's talking about."
Dukes' Florida-based lawyer, Grady Irvin Jr., wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press: "Mr. Dukes has had absolutely no new off-the-field legal issues whatsoever. Despite the recent loss of his father, the past year has demonstrated that Mr. Dukes has continued his growth as a professional athlete, as a parent, and as a person."
Added Dukes: "All I've been doing is my job."
Dukes hit .242 with 31 homers and 123 RBIs in three seasons with Tampa Bay and Washington. He was limited to 188 games with the Nationals the past two seasons because of injuries.
"There was no singular incident that caused us to release Elijah Dukes," Rizzo said. "It was a performance-based decision. With the ballclub we have now, I think the clubhouse will be more cohesive group. I think that the chemistry will continue to be great. We think were going to be a better ballclub moving forward."
Dukes was signed to a one-year contract paying him $444,000 in the majors and $249,300 in the minors.
Rizzo said the Nationals looked into trying to trade Dukes but couldn't find any interest. The GM also said the team did not want to put Dukes in the minors, although the player could have been sent there without passing through waivers.
"We thought he's a major league player," Rizzo said. "We didn't think it would help his development by sending him down to the minor leagues. We felt that it was best for him to get a fresh start with a different organization, and for us to move on."
Rizzo wouldn't rule out trying to acquire another outfielder, but he did say Washington will first try to replace Dukes in the lineup with someone already on the team, and Riggleman mentioned Justin Maxwell, Mike Morse and Willie Harris as the best options. Riggleman said prospect Ian Desmond will not be considered for the position.
Among those caught off-guard by Dukes' release was Maxwell, who wasn't aware of the move until reporters told him Wednesday morning.
"I was pretty surprised," Maxwell said. "I had no idea. I saw him this morning eating breakfast. I never had any problems with Elijah. But in terms of the team standpoint, I guess there were other things being said and done and some of it was a distraction to us. I think we'll be better for it, and I just wish him luck in the future."
Dukes said his agent was already working on finding a good fit for him on a new team.
"Most definitely, I'll be back," he said.