8:42 am Mar. 30, 2012
Lucas Duda, the starting right fielder for the 2012 New York Mets, is set to carry on a proud tradition of lean-year Mets idols.
A laconic 6'4" offensive brute who doesn't reliably catch the ball, Duda brings to mind such Met outfielders as Ron Swoboda, who was a Shea favorite long before he participated in the 1969 miracle season, and Dave Kingman, another slugger with a suspect glove, who made the identical defensive switch that Duda is making for the Mets now, back in 1976.
After playing 58 games at first base and 68 games in left field in 1975, the Mets moved Kingman to the more challenging right field for 106 games in 1976. Kingman hit 36 home runs in 1975 and 37 home runs in 1976. He struck out a lot, too. But the fans loved him.
But while Duda is unlikely to approach Kingman's home run totals (a season somewhere between Swoboda and Kingman is the best bet) he is likely to be the Met that fans take closest to their hearts in what is likely to be a challenging season.
Consider the alternatives. Neither Josh Thole, the catcher, nor Ruben Tejada, the shortstop, are exceptional all-around players, and they don't possess any freakish skills to distinguish themselves in the way that Duda does with his displays of raw power.
Fans are attached to David Wright but fear, with good reason, that the team might not keep him long-term. At the same time, they fear that the team will hold on to Jason Bay for years, thanks to a horrific long-term contract.
Andres Torres is a transitional figure in center field. Both Daniel Murphy and Ike Davis have yet to prove they can stay healthy, and Murphy has yet to show he has staying power at his new position, second base.
But Duda? He'll get every chance to play in right field, pretty much no matter what. Manager Terry Collins made it clear early on in spring training, when discussing who could substitute for Davis should he miss time, that the natural first baseman Duda would remain in right field regardless of other injuries.
The Mets, in other words, intend to see exactly what they have in Duda. With no real alternatives anywhere close in the organization, that makes sense. But it could get ugly out there. Duda has no real range, and his throwing arm is average at best.
But if the 2012 Mets as a whole aren't set up for a great season, Duda himself should be. He should get 600 at-bats unless the apocalypse comes, and the newly changed dimensions at Citi Field are likely to help him in every way.
The lowered wall in left field, while intended to help the team's right-handed pull hitters, should lead to more Duda opposite-field home runs as well. Duda, a lefty hitter, has that kind of power, and frequently, as he did in a game earlier this week, goes the other way. The pulled-in fence in right field will help Duda even more, both in terms of his ability to pull balls out of the ballpark, and in taking away a significant amount of ground he'd otherwise have to navigate while patrolling right field.
Even if Duda maxes out his abilities by, say, becoming a consistent 30 home run hitter and an adequate right fielder, he still won't be a star at the level of David Wright at his best, or the dearly departed Jose Reyes. But for a team short on building-block players to dream on, Duda should give the people who go to Citi Field something to watch.
They won't be booing this year. They'll be saying Duuuuda.