No team is more loaded with fascinating young talent -- real or Rotisserie -- than Tampa Bay. That's not enough to predict great things for this season, but a few years down the road, well ...
Posted: Tuesday March 13, 2007 12:11PM; Updated: Tuesday March 13, 2007 12:11PM
A sleepy-eyed Elijah Dukes sits behind the wheel of his white Escalade and gazes out into the sun-rinsed Florida morning, nothing but open highway and serenity in front of him. Whenever he makes the 40-minute drive from his house in Brandon, Fla., to St. Petersburg, the spring training home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Dukes sees his tragic and troubled past recede further into the rearview mirror. "Every time I get to the ballpark, I forget all the problems I've dealt with," says the 22-year-old outfielder. "Baseball's my haven."
A ripped 6'2", 250-pound high school All-America linebacker who plays all three outfield positions with effortless grace, Dukes is arguably the most talented prospect from the most talent-rich minor league system in the majors. Nobody in the Tampa Bay organization would be stunned if he became an elite player within five years. Nor would anybody be surprised if Dukes -- who's been arrested six times in the last nine years -- were out of baseball altogether in a year.
Dukes is Exhibit A for a tantalizing yet maddening player development program that has neither broken the franchise's nine-year run of losing seasons nor been able to avoid embarrassing headlines. Consider how 2006 unspooled for the organization's prized jewels at Triple A Durham. Rightfielder Delmon Young, 21, a budding Vlad Guerrero clone and the top pick of the '03 draft, threw his bat at an umpire in April and received a 50-game suspension. Shortstop-turned third baseman B.J. Upton, 22, the second pick of the '02 draft once hailed as Derek Jeter with more power, was arrested in June for driving while intoxicated. And Dukes, USA Today's top two-sport high school athlete in '02 and Tampa Bay's third-round pick that year, was suspended for the last month of the season for misconduct.
All three prospects arrived at spring training eager to forget the past, and with Opening Day two weeks away, are virtually certain to start the season in the Show -- not to mention attract wild bidding in any fantasy keeper leagues. "We absolutely think they're ready to contribute at the major league level," says executive vice president Andrew Friedman. "We have no doubts about their physical abilities; on the mental side, I think all three have made some big strides."
Of the three, Dukes has the most to overcome and, according to no shortage of baseball scouts and executives, the most upside. He says he models his playing style after that of Pete Rose -- on one play at the plate last year Dukes barreled over the catcher and an umpire -- and at bat he displays both lightning-quick hands and exceptional command of the strike zone. Says the scouting director of a rival team, "In terms of raw ability, he might be as good as any prospect in the game, but if you asked all [the scouting directors in the majors] where he ranks among all prospects, no one would put him in their top 50 simply because of his off-field history."
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