It’s 2017, the year that will make a decade of suffering and terrible baseball a fair trade. The only catch is nobody told fate and instead the New York Mets are injury-ravaged and playing scrappy baseball to stay alive. Eventually some health will return and the breaks will fall more in their favor, but it’s a season to pull the trigger on winning this year.
It’s time to pull the trigger on moving Lucas Duda out of town.
Duda tends to be a polarizing topic – especially here at Mets360. One crowd raves about his power, ability to take a walk and adequate defense at first, while another screams about his one-dimensional game. This isn’t the time to argue the homegrown Met’s merits; it’s time to argue his value on and off this ballclub.
At the age of 31, Duda has a track record of smashing the hide off the ball. In his last two full seasons – 2014 and 2015 – he hit a combined 57 home runs and sported a .483 slugging percentage. That put him in the company of serious power hitters like Chris Davis, Josh Donaldson and Giancarlo Stanton. On top of that, Duda routinely trots to first via base on balls and sports an on-base percentage 100 points higher than his batting average. In those two full seasons, he averaged 67 walks a year. He’s even managed to play a competent first base after a few miserable years in left field.
The other side of the former farmhand’s game is that it fits significantly better on an American League team. He may have the thump and a good eye, but Duda also plays right into the stereotype. His career batting average lives in the .240s and in each of 2014 and 2015 he struck out twice as many times as he walked. In fact, the first baseman tends to be an all-or-nothing hitter. His 4.2 percent of career hits being home runs is higher than the 2.6 percent league average, but his career strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio and at-bats per strikeout are all below average. A ball hit off Duda’s bat is also far more likely to go up than down as his ground out-to-air out ratio is almost half the league average. And with almost no speed to speak of, he’s limited to 5 career steals and wearing a first baseman’s mitt.
In summary, Lucas Duda, 31, is a guy who hits lots of fly balls – plenty going over the wall – and will both walk and strikeout often.
Meanwhile, the Mets have been sporting a few different options since hyper-extending his elbow in mid-April. Right fielder Jay Bruce surprised many Mets fans by donning a New York uniform on Opening Day, and he surprised them again by donning a first baseman’s glove immediately after Duda hit the DL. He played six games at first and largely held his own, despite leaving the outfield for a grand total of three games prior in his career. At the plate, Bruce, 30, is similar to the incumbent first baseman, although Bruce hits for a slightly higher average, walks less often and isn’t quite as reliant on fly balls.
Bruce returned to his native right field after a week, replaced by a player from a very different mold. T.J. Rivera, 28, grew up in the Bronx and was undrafted after college. Signed to the Mets franchise as a free agent in 2011, Rivera quietly went about making lots of contact with a touch of power at the plate and playing around the infield. That culminated with a PCL batting title – he finished a single point over teammate Brandon Nimmo – and a .333 batting average in 33 games with New York last season. Rivera isn’t quite as likely to hit a home run as Duda or Bruce with a 2.2 percent career home run rate, but his strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio and at-bats per strikeout are polar opposites from Duda. Simply put, Rivera is more likely to put the ball in play and provides defensive versatility.
The other option at first who’s more often found his way across the diamond is Wilmer Flores. A shortstop in the minors, Flores evolved into a bat-first utility infielder who captivated fans’ hearts two years ago. The 25-year-old has seen time on the DL every season since breaking camp with the Mets in 2015, although he has played in a combined 240 games the last two seasons. As a player, Flores is an amalgamation of Rivera and the power bats of Duda and Bruce. He clubbed 16 home runs each of the past two seasons, sports a career home run rate half a point higher than the league average and averages a fraction of a strikeout per walk more than the league. The utility man also strikes out significantly less often and has more at-bats per strikeout than the average major leaguer and sports a slightly higher batting average at the expense of walks.
Something has to give, perhaps imminently. Reports published earlier this week suggested Duda would return before this weekend. Superstar left fielder Yoenis Cespedes could return in a few weeks. And eventually catcher Travis d’Arnaud, pitchers Steven Matz and Seth Lugo, and probably Nimmo will also join the 25-man roster. This will require shuffling the roster.
Michael Conforto cannot be sent down. Team management decided to yield the young outfielder’s natural position to Cespedes and let Curtis Granderson patrol center field, with a little help from Juan Lagares. Fortunately for fans, Conforto has responded in a huge way with a .337 batting average and 1.082 on-base plus slugging percentage. The 24-year-old boasts the versatility to play the entire outfield, but there are just too many cooks in the kitchen once they’re all healthy.
Rivera poses another conundrum to the front office. The infielder has been a dynamo with the parent club in 2017, but serious questions need to be answered. He’s made a career of making contact and sporting a batting average on balls in play above average, but can he continue to maintain his 2017 figure that’s again substantially higher than the league average? Can the Mets survive with a high-average and doubles power from a stereotypical power position?
And speaking of power, what about Bruce?
There’s one solution to each issue – trade Duda to an American League team. Despite coming off an injury he still holds value as a patient, power threat who can realistically bounce between first base and Designated Hitter. Meanwhile, the Mets can continue to ride the red-hot Rivera and sprinkle in Bruce and/or Flores as needed. The franchise also has top prospect Dominic Smith likely to visit Queens this season. There are proven in-house options while Duda could be flipped for solid bullpen help or a sturdier catcher.
Trade Duda now before he steals playing time away from Rivera and leaves talent sitting on the bench while other positions languish under injuries.