Left field has always been used as a kind of defensive dumping ground for many teams trying to find a way to get a bat in the lineup. Not requiring the arm strength considered de rigueur for Right, and less daunting in the presence of a fleet centerfielder, it is often a place for players whose offense demands playing time, but are not “natural” outfielders and have been blocked from a preferred position by a regular or superior defender.
Even good glovemen have been known to regard the territory with disdain: following his trade to the Texas Rangers, Lee Mazzilli reacted to being shifted from center to left to accommodate Rangers’ rookie George Wright by referring to his new spot in the outfield as “an idiot’s position.” Surely an overly harsh judgment, but objectively, it is accepted baseball wisdom that players with less speed, weaker throwing arms, and generally questionable glove skills are best relegated to the “low glamor” pasture to best hide their defensive shortcomings. All of this is assuming, of course, that their bats will provide sufficient thump to offset the inevitable consequences of their less-than-stellar glove work.
The Mets have certainly tried their fair share of square pegs in that particular round hole. After acquiring Mike Piazza, an attempt was made to shift the suddenly superfluous Todd Hundley to left. It didn’t end well. And we all still have the memories of Daniel Murphy’s adventures there fresh in our minds. Hopefully, his apparently successful adaptation to second base will help them fade soon.
Now we have the Dude. After appearing primarily in RF last season, Lucas has been shifted across the field to replace the departed Jason Bay, a player whose offensive woes notwithstanding, provided average to, at times, above average defense. But Bay’s glove could not carry his bat, and the Mets clearly expect much more in terms of offense from Duda.
Interestingly, it is not as if Duda is playing an unfamiliar position (even though it might appear that way), having logged 296 games in LF while in the minors. He spent considerable time in the outfield during his collegiate career as well although he seems to have been primarily a first-sacker during his early days at USC. Regardless, it has been his power potential as reflected by his imposing stature as well as the occasionally notable outburst of big flies in his minor league career (e.g. a run of 5 consecutive games with a homer during his 2010 campaign with Buffalo) that have led Mets management to install him in LF and hope for the best.
The tutelage of Mets outfield coach Tom Goodwin and careful positioning may combine to neutralize some of the more glaring holes in the Dude’s game, although if the play involving Rob Brantley’s drive to the left-field corner during the Marlin game on April 7 is any indication, there is plenty more work to be done. He does have a good arm, having pitched and served as the closer on his high school team.
So, the question remains as to what course of action would be best for Mets management to follow given the various scenarios that could develop with Duda’s career. On the one hand, he is a relatively young (27) controllable player (2 years from arbitration eligibility and 5 from free agency) that has shown flashes of power, probably the scarcest resource in the Met system. On the other hand, with his size and relative lack of foot speed, he profiles more closely as a first baseman, a spot likely currently occupied by Ike Davis. Accordingly, I foresee one of four possible scenarios developing:
- His bat develops as the team hopes, and he becomes a consistent 25-30 HR and 100 RBI threat whose game-breaking ability outweighs his mediocre defensive metrics. He remains in LF as long as feasible.
- His bat develops as the team hopes, etc., and he becomes a valuable trade chip, perhaps to a team in the AL where he can DH or to a team in either league with a vacancy at 1B. The resultant return being either a “true” outfielder with comparable offensive skills, a “true” outfielder with complimentary offensive skills (i.e. speed, high OBP), or a package of high minor level talent to help plug various positions (e.g. outfield, bullpen).
- His bat develops as the team hopes, etc. and the team finds a better trade match for Ike Davis who is dealt for the resources described previously and Duda is installed at 1B.
- His bat continues to tease but he does not take the next step to that of a consistent power threat fast enough, at which point his defense becomes truly problematic. Team management is then left with a choice of using him as a role player or getting what they can for him in the trade market.
I can envision his development taking the favorable path. He has shown a good eye at the plate, although his patience has at times been criticized as a lack of properly channeled aggression by some. He has exhibited a reasonable ability to hit left handers in his career, albeit with somewhat reduced power. He is at the age where many players enter their time of greatest production.
What sets great lineups apart from merely good ones are what follow the four hole and gives the batting order “length.” When Travis d’Arnaud arrives, he likely projects as a number five hitter, keeping the preferred left/right alternation in place behind Davis, assuming Davis gets his act together. If Duda can fill the slot of the sixth place hitter consistently (there’s that word again), the Mets should have excellent run production.
As the first six weeks of the season wraps up, Duda has seen his stats across the board decline sharply. In April he was among the league leaders with a .436 OBP and .978 OPS while batting mostly sixth or seventh in the lineup.
However, when May rolled around, Terry Collins began batting Duda in the cleanup and five spot and the results so far have been disastrous. In 13 games this month, Duda has a .119/.191/.357 batting line in 49 at-bats which have all but erased the gains he made in April. He does have eight home runs and a very respectable .355 on-base, but somehow he leaves you wanting more. He’s become quite the enigma. It’s still early in the season, and it’s not like the Mets have any better options at the ready, but he needs to start showing some aggression and start swinging and making contact with some of those strikes that just seem to pass him by.