Sleepy-eyedElijah Dukes sits behind the wheel of his white Escalade and gazes out into thesun-rinsed Florida morning, nothing but open highway and serenity in front ofhim. Whenever he makes the 40-minute drive from his house in Brandon, Fla., toSt. Petersburg, the spring training home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Dukessees 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 dealtwith," says the 22-year-old outfielder. "Baseball's my haven."
A ripped 6'2", 250-pound high school All-America linebacker who plays allthree outfield positions with effortless grace, Dukes is arguably the mosttalented 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 eliteplayer within five years. Nor would anybody be surprised if Dukes--who's beenarrested six times in the last nine years--were out of baseball altogether in ayear.
Dukes is ExhibitA for a tantalizing yet maddening player development program that has neitherbroken the franchise's nine-year run of losing seasons nor been able to avoidembarrassing headlines. Consider how 2006 unspooled for the organization'sprized jewels at Triple A Durham. Rightfielder Delmon Young, 21, a budding VladGuerrero clone and the top pick of the '03 draft, threw his bat at an umpire inApril 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 withmore power, was arrested in June for driving while intoxicated. And Dukes, USAToday's top two-sport high school athlete in '02 and Tampa Bay's third-roundpick that year, was suspended for the last month of the season formisconduct.
All threeprospects arrived at spring training eager to forget the past, and with OpeningDay two weeks away, are virtually certain to start the season in the Show--notto mention attract wild bidding in any fantasy keeper leagues. "Weabsolutely think they're ready to contribute at the major league level,"says executive vice president Andrew Friedman. "We have no doubts abouttheir physical abilities; on the mental side, I think all three have made somebig strides."
Of the three,Dukes has the most to overcome and, according to no shortage of baseball scoutsand executives, the most upside. He says he models his playing style after thatof Pete Rose--on one play at the plate last year Dukes barreled over thecatcher and an umpire--and at bat he displays both lightning-quick hands andexceptional command of the strike zone. Says the scouting director of a rivalteam, "In terms of raw ability, he might be as good as any prospect in thegame, but if you asked all [the scouting directors in the majors] where heranks among all prospects, no one would put him in their top 50 simply becauseof his off-field history."
That history dogshim wherever he goes, even in his home ballpark. After striking out during anexhibition game in St. Petersburg last week, he walked back to the dugout toheckles of "Criminal!" from the stands. Dukes's rap sheet includesarrests for domestic violence in 1998; for assault in 2003 (the charge wasdropped); for resisting an officer in '03; for domestic battery in 2005 (hepleaded no contest and received one year's probation); and for driving anunregistered vehicle in '05. Two months ago he was arrested for marijuanapossession.
The low point ofhis baseball career came last August, when Rays minor league director MitchLukevics informed him that he was suspended for the final 30 games of theseason. Nine days before Dukes had been ejected from a game for arguing ballsand strikes with an ump, then had refused to leave the dugout. There's a reasonfor Dukes's anger, and he offers it not as an alibi but as a tacit plea forunderstanding. He grew up in crime-ridden East Tampa and was 11 years old whenhis father, Elijah Dukes Sr., fatally shot a man who, according to Tampa policereports, swindled Elijah Sr.'s wife, Phyllis, into buying $100 worth of phonycrack cocaine. A year later Elijah Sr., pleaded guilty to second-degree murderand was sentenced to 20 years in prison. "Having to grow up with that whenyou're 12, having to fend for yourself and be the man of the house, that's noteasy," says Dukes, who has five siblings. "That probably made me alittle angry as a kid, and maybe that's why I sometimes feel like I have to bemore aggressive than I need to be."
To help Dukesmanage his anger issues, Friedman introduced him to Boston-based life coachAndre Norman, an ex-convict who had been imprisoned for attempted murder. Thetwo spoke almost daily during the off-season, and Norman escorted Dukes on atour of east coast cities to talk to troubled youths. "I was shy, kind of aloner type," says Dukes, "but talking to people opened me up."
At camp thisspring, coaches and teammates have similarly found Dukes to be more outgoingand at ease than in the past. "He's working hard, listening to everythingthat's being said, saying all the right things," says hitting coach SteveHenderson.
The Tampa staffapplies that same description to Dukes's close friend Young, who even beforethe infamous bat-throwing incident had a reputation as a malcontent, oftengrousing during his brief stint in the minors that he deserved a promotion tothe majors. The meltdown and subsequent suspension, however, apparently servedas a wake-up call. Upton, then Young's teammate at Durham, recalls rushing intothe locker room and hollering, "Do you know what you just did? What wereyou thinking?" Young immediately dialed up Friedman on his cellphone toapologize.
The youngerbrother of 11-year vet Dmitri Young, Delmon passed the days of his banishmentby fulfilling a 52-hour community service requirement. He taught baseball todisabled children. He spoke to sick kids at the Ronald McDonald House. Heplayed wheelchair softball. "The experiences were eye-opening," hesays. "Sometimes you do take for granted the opportunities you have. MaybeI did."
At the end oflast August, Young made his long-awaited major league debut. In 30 games he hit.317 with 13 extra-base hits in 131 at bats, and in the clubhouse he developeda reputation for humility and hard work. "No one beat him to theballpark," says Friedman. "During batting practice guys are talking andjoking around. He's in rightfield playing balls off the bat. He's backing upbases. Other people say, 'Oh, it's only going to happen one out of a hundredtimes,' but Delmon's attitude has been, 'I want to be there that one out of ahundred times.'"
Coaches thinkYoung will develop 30-home-run power over time, but there is concern over hisGuerrero-like overaggressiveness, which opposing pitchers are likely toexploit. Last year he swung at 68.7% of the pitches he saw, which, according toSTATS Inc., is the highest percentage of any batter in the last decade.
Still, with Youngpenciled in as the team's Opening Day rightfielder, the Devil Rays are the rareclub that boasts a five-tool player at each outfield position. Joining Youngare two of the game's best pure athletes, Carl Crawford, 25, and RoccoBaldelli, 25. Crawford, who was recruited out of high school to quarterback theoption offense for Nebraska, has improved his home run and OBP totals in eachof his five seasons. Baldelli, a four-sport high school standout who led histeams to state titles in volleyball, basketball and baseball, showed signs of abreakout last season when he hit .302 with 16 home runs in 92 games.
Manager JoeMaddon will find at bats for Dukes, using him as a fourth outfielder anddesignated hitter. "He can play all three outfield positions," says themanager, "and I want to give our guys days off. Rocco's coming off injuries[that cost him all of '05] and Carl runs so hard on the [Tropicana Field] turf,we have to keep him fresh."
A biggerchallenge for Maddon will be finding regular playing time for Upton, a6'3", 180-pound speedster who stole 90 bases during the last two years inDurham. Upton has yet to find a position to call his own in the majors becauseof his struggles on defense. Maddon envisions him as a superutility player,like the Angels' Chone Figgins. One day last week he started his morningtracking fly balls in the outfield, then convened with a coach to improve hisfootwork at third base, then took infield practice at shortstop, where heplayed five flawless innings in a game against the Twins that afternoon."We've been trying to force this guy here for years," says Maddon."I want to let him develop at his own pace. I want to deemphasize hisdefense and emphasize his offense. He needs to hit."
More than Dukesor Young, Upton is feeling the pressure to live up to his hype, because theDevil Rays have more premier infield talent in the pipeline. Power-hittingthird baseman Evan Longoria, the team's top pick in '06, isn't far away, andshortstop Reid Brignac, who grew two inches and added 15 pounds of muscle inthe off-season, hit .326 while winning the MVP award in the high Class ACalifornia League.
Enough on howgood the baby Rays could be down the road. "Now's the time to see what someof these kids can do in a full season," says Crawford. Dukes knows who'swatching. "A lot of people didn't think I'd be here," he says."It's been a long, tough road. But this is [a new] beginning."
Who will be thisyear's Dan Uggla? Or Matt Holliday? Using its PECOTA prediction model, whichdivines a player's stats based on up to 100 comparable players, BaseballProspectus lists the top sleeper at each position (including the player'sprojected key stats in '07). For BP's top 10 players at each position, go toSI.com/fantasy.
|C||PAUL LO DUCA, Mets||.289||55||5||49||3|
|Not only is he unlikely to replicate his .318 averagefrom last year--the first time he's hit better than .300 since 2001--but alsomanager Willie Randolph is contemplating moving Lo Duca out of the two-spot inthe order, which means fewer at bats and runs scored.|
|1B||LYLE OVERBAY, Blue Jays||.291||85||20||82||3|
|Two things to consider: Having just turned 30 yearsold, he shouldn't be counted on to match last season's career-high .312 battingaverage; and he'll be hitting second in the order, which means fewer RBIopportunities than last season, when he mostly hit fifth.|
|2B||BRANDON PHILLIPS, Reds||.273||69||13||55||16|
|After an excellent first half in '06 (.306 average,seven homers, 44 RBIs) his performance declined after the All-Star break. Thisspring Phillips has been nursing a sore shin. Given his brief burst of success,it's best to let someone else do the bidding.|
|3B||ERIC CHAVEZ, Athletics||.263||81||24||83||4|
|After an awful 2006 the 29-year-old's window ofopportunity for another big year has come and gone. There are too many thingspreventing Chavez from being a fantasy stud, from his disposition to injuriesto his inability to hit lefthanded pitching.|
|SS||JULIO LUGO, Red Sox||.284||83||8||59||21|
|He can run (at least 21 stolen bases in each of thelast three seasons), but don't overrate Lugo (above) on the basis of a finefirst half last year in Tampa Bay. He hasn't hit over .300 nor had more than 15homers or 75 RBIs--and he's no longer playing for a contract.|
|OF||ICHIRO SUZUKI, Mariners||.312||101||6||57||23|
|There are people in King County, Wash., who claim tohave seen him walk on water, but most hitters who rely on speed and battingaverage encounter trouble once they pass the age of 32. Drafting the33-year-old Ichiro already means punting on HRs and RBIs.|
|Util||JIM THOME, White Sox||.263||80||28||79||1|
|Which Thome is going to show up this year--the onewho was good for 42 HRs and 109 RBIs last season, or the one who hit .207 andspent most of 2005 on the shelf? Given his age, 36, and the way his powertailed off after the All-Star break, the odds lean toward the latter.|
|SP||JASON SCHMIDT, Dodgers||11||0||4.03||1.30||170|
|Dodger Stadium no longer plays as a great pitchers'park, and with J.D. Drew gone to Boston, L.A. may struggle to score runs forSchmidt. Because his WHIP will be inflated by a high walk rate, there's noreason to treat him as a premium fantasy pitcher.|
|RP||BOBBY JENKS, White Sox||4||31||3.50||1.32||74|
|In hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field, Jenks's ERAand WHIP will be too high to help you. There's also the Ozzie Factor: Jenks gothis closer's job at the end of '05 on a whim, and Guillen's quick trigger meansthat hard-throwing Mike MacDougal could take it away by year's end.|
For the results of SI.com's entire 23-round draft, plus comments on each pick(including space for reader comments), go to SI.com/fantasy.
Jose Reyes (right)
• Delmon Young
•As Good As Advertised
Dukes plays the game with a mean streak, but his anger has been an issue on andoff the field in the minors.
Though only 22, Upton is starting to hear the footsteps of yet another wave oftalented young infielders.
In his debut Young swung at almost everything but still showed good power andhit .300-plus.