"Manager Manny Acta has decided that Austin Kearns will be his starting right fielder when the Nationals open the season against the Marlins on Monday at Dolphin Stadium.
Kearns was given the news about 35 minutes before Washington played the Orioles at Nationals Park on Saturday.
According to Acta, Kearns outplayed Elijah Dukes for the job, hitting .279 with a team-leading four home runs and 10 RBIs this spring. Dukes, on the other hand, struck out 22 times in 52 at-bats.
"Austin really worked hard, not only during Spring Training but in the offseason, too," Acta said. "He made the adjustments during Spring Training. He had a good spring, offensively and defensively. After he led the outfielders in home runs, I think it would have sent the wrong message if we didn't give him the job -- at least to start the season."
I understand that Kearns had a better spring than Dukes. There is no doubt that Dukes still has a ways to go before his skills match his raw talent. A case can certainly be made that right now, Austin Kearns is a better player than Elijah Dukes.
But consider this, folks. The Nationals are not going anywhere this season and I think a majority of baseball fans/personnel agree with that statement. This is a ball club that needs to be building for the future and discovering pieces that will be in Washington DC for a long time to come.
Austin Kearns likely will not be with the Nationals after 2009. Kearns has a 2010 team option for $10 million that the Nationals will certainly not pick up and as a result, Kearns will become a free agent. Even if Kearns has a productive season in 2009, I cannot see the Nationals committing to a 29 year old average outfielder long term when they have so many other outfielders in the system (Willingham, Dunn, Dukes, Milledge).
Bottom line: you know what your gonna get from Austin Kearns-a mediocre corner outfielder, who will hit .260-.270 with 15 or so home runs. There is virtually no upside with Kearns.
On the other hand, Elijah Dukes could have a future with the Washington Nationals. Dukes is an immensely talented 24 year old, who has shown plus power, good speed, and the ability to get on base. The talent is there, but the Nationals will never know exactly what they can get out of Dukes if they do not give him consistent playing time. Dukes is raw and will struggle at times, but there is no doubt that his upside is far greater than that of Austin Kearns.
I understand that Manager Manny Acta wants to set the precedent that the best players will play and that you have to perform well in order to get playing time. That's an admirable and commendable stance...make no mistake about it. But at the same time, this is not what's best for the Nationals organization. They need to see exactly what they have in Dukes in order to determine if he fits into their long term plans.
Best case scenario right now is that Kearns puts up a month or two of good stats, which gives GM Mike Rizzo the opportunity to trade him for a peak return. But unless that happens, I think that Nationals are missing their opportunity to see what Elijah Dukes can do.