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Fantasy Future
March 19, 2007
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 ...
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March 19, 2007

Fantasy Future

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 ...

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C MIKE NAPOLI, Angels .239 50 17 52 3
Sure, he might hit not hit much better than .228, his '06 average, but that's an acceptable price to pay at a position where power is in great demand. Last year Napoli banged one homer per 16.8 at bats, a rate better than that of AL MVP Justin Morneau.
1B CONOR JACKSON, Diamondbacks .294 83 18 74 2
He plays like a young Paul Konerko, which means he's a good bet to improve on his home run output (15 in '06). His RBI total should also increase in Arizona's young and improving lineup, particularly if he hits in the cleanup spot, as anticipated.
2B JOSH BARFIELD, Indians .267 69 15 65 11
The bad news is that the former Padre will be hurt by the switch to the more difficult American League. The good news is that he still offers plenty as an under-the-radar fantasy pick, including power numbers that should improve outside of canyonlike Petco Park.
3B EDWIN ENCARNACION, Reds .277 84 23 78 9
His counting stats (15 HRs, 72 RBIs) were held down in '06 because of an ankle injury that cost him nearly a month, but he ended the year healthy and at age 24 is on the upslope of his career. Think a younger version of Aramis Ramirez.
SS STEPHEN DREW, Diamondbacks .287 83 22 81 4
With all the great young shortstops in the NL, the younger brother of J.D. gets lost in the shuffle. Stephen strikes out too often to replicate the .316 BA he put up during a stretch-run trial in Arizona, but his minor league track record suggests the potential for 20 to 30 homers.
OF COREY HART, Brewers .288 76 20 67 18
Ned Yost has handed Hart the rightfield job for a reason: He's a fantastic athlete whose power, speed and stature recall a young Andre Dawson. Hart stole 31 bases in '05, his last full season in the minors, and a 30-30 season isn't out of the question if he gets 500 at bats.
Util B.J. UPTON, Devil Rays .268 69 10 40 30
He presents obvious risks after a shaky start in spring training, but the combination of his speed and positional versatility (he can play five spots) are too tempting to pass on. The power upside is there too; anybody who crushes a dozen homers in Triple A at 19 deserves the benefit of the doubt.

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."

That history dogs him wherever he goes, even in his home ballpark. After striking out during an exhibition game in St. Petersburg last week, he walked back to the dugout to heckles of "Criminal!" from the stands. Dukes's rap sheet includes arrests for domestic violence in 1998; for assault in 2003 (the charge was dropped); for resisting an officer in '03; for domestic battery in 2005 (he pleaded no contest and received one year's probation); and for driving an unregistered vehicle in '05. Two months ago he was arrested for marijuana possession.

The low point of his baseball career came last August, when Rays minor league director Mitch Lukevics informed him that he was suspended for the final 30 games of the season. Nine days before Dukes had been ejected from a game for arguing balls and strikes with an ump, then had refused to leave the dugout. There's a reason for Dukes's anger, and he offers it not as an alibi but as a tacit plea for understanding. He grew up in crime-ridden East Tampa and was 11 years old when his father, Elijah Dukes Sr., fatally shot a man who, according to Tampa police reports, swindled Elijah Sr.'s wife, Phyllis, into buying $100 worth of phony crack cocaine. A year later Elijah Sr., pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. "Having to grow up with that when you're 12, having to fend for yourself and be the man of the house, that's not easy," says Dukes, who has five siblings. "That probably made me a little angry as a kid, and maybe that's why I sometimes feel like I have to be more aggressive than I need to be."

To help Dukes manage his anger issues, Friedman introduced him to Boston-based life coach Andre Norman, an ex-convict who had been imprisoned for attempted murder. The two spoke almost daily during the off-season, and Norman escorted Dukes on a tour of east coast cities to talk to troubled youths. "I was shy, kind of a loner type," says Dukes, "but talking to people opened me up."

At camp this spring, coaches and teammates have similarly found Dukes to be more outgoing and at ease than in the past. "He's working hard, listening to everything that's being said, saying all the right things," says hitting coach Steve Henderson.

The Tampa staff applies that same description to Dukes's close friend Young, who even before the infamous bat-throwing incident had a reputation as a malcontent, often grousing during his brief stint in the minors that he deserved a promotion to the majors. The meltdown and subsequent suspension, however, apparently served as a wake-up call. Upton, then Young's teammate at Durham, recalls rushing into the locker room and hollering, "Do you know what you just did? What were you thinking?" Young immediately dialed up Friedman on his cellphone to apologize.

The younger brother of 11-year vet Dmitri Young, Delmon passed the days of his banishment by fulfilling a 52-hour community service requirement. He taught baseball to disabled children. He spoke to sick kids at the Ronald McDonald House. He played wheelchair softball. "The experiences were eye-opening," he says. "Sometimes you do take for granted the opportunities you have. Maybe I did."

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