By Michael Mandelkern
Lucas Duda could be the New York Mets’ best option to start at first base next year. Even though he has not played a full season, his OBP and OPS statistics look promising. He has raw power too. But most importantly to General Manager Sandy Alderson, he comes cheap.
Duda, 27, made his Mets debut in September 2010 and is set to make roughly $2 million next season. This is nearly $3.5 million below the average salary of a Major League Baseball first baseman. His ceiling is lower than fellow first baseman Ike Davis, but the front office is pushing to trade Davis.
2014 is an opportunity for Duda to shine. At 6’4” and 255 pounds, he is a lumbering presence at the plate, yet his confidence has come into question throughout his career. Duda has said that he is most comfortable on offense when playing first base, but he was underwhelming at that position this past season. He batted .223/.352/.415 in 2013 with 15 HR and 33 RBI through 384 plate appearances.
His best stretch of baseball was in 2011 when he posted a .292/.370/.482 slash line with 10 home runs and 50 runs batted in through 347 plate appearances. The low average he has had over the past two seasons would be more acceptable if he were a 30 home run hitter.
Duda needs to find a balance between taking pitches and being aggressive in favorable counts. He is a soft-spoken man of few words who tends to take pitches when he should be swinging. Thirteen of his 15 home runs were solo shots aside from one two-run homer and a three-run blast in September, which means that he only drove in 15 runs without the long ball.
Plate discipline is Duda’s upside. His career on-base percentage is .342 with a .352 OBP and .767 on-base plus percentage last season. However, his OBP was only .329 in 2012 through 121 games, the most he has played in one season.
A walk only drives in a run when the bases are loaded, and his running game is slower than molasses. The Mets sent Duda down to the minor leagues in 2012 after a prolonged slump. He is seldom clutch in key situations; he had an anemic .145 batting average with runners in scoring position last season. That is worse than 566 other hitters in 2013.
Alderson must be decisive next season about whether Duda is a full-time first baseman or just a stopgap until they are able to make an upgrade. He needs to play as close to 162 games in 2014 as possible in order for the front office to truly assess his value. Some of his statistics are impressive on paper, but he has not shown the gumption to thrive under pressure.