12:02 pm Jul. 25, 20122
The Lucas Duda experiment is over.
The New York Mets announced Tuesday that they were demoting him to Triple-A Buffalo.
Duda had started 77 of the team's first 96 games in right field, and no one else on the major league roster had played well enough to push him out of the job. No one in Triple-A made a particularly good case to replace him, either; his demotion is going to make room on the roster for ... reliever Manny Acosta.
Duda was demoted, simply, because he is not a major league right fielder.
"To be honest, I told him 'we're gonna put you back where you're comfortable,'" Mets manager Terry Collins explained Tuesday afternoon. "Let's see if he can concentrate more on his offense, because that's what's gonna get him back here."
Duda's offense has dipped considerably over the past month. But even when he's been hitting, it wasn't clear that it made up for Duda's extreme defensive limitations. He was easily the worst right fielder in baseball, and by some measures, the worst defensive player at any position this year.
The thing is that the Mets, and general manager Sandy Alderson, had little other choice, given the team's financial constraints.
It's hard to see even now, with the benefit of hindsight, how it would have been possible to build a contending team out of the New York Mets last winter.
Coming off of a 77-85 season, the Mets lost their two most valuable players: Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. The two, combined, were worth slightly more than eight wins together. So Alderson was starting with roughly a 70-win team. He had, we now know, about $12 million to spend.
That ruled out bringing back either Reyes or Beltran. Even if he had managed to fit either into his 2012 budget, it would have eliminated any other roster moves that added salary. And the net result would have been a couple of wins in the case of Beltran, a win in the case of Reyes, based on their 2012 production. So, not enough.
Let's allocate it differently, however, and spend based on the areas we know, in hindsight, are the biggest problems on the Mets, while using our knowledge of 2012 production to add the best producers for the money at each spot.
Lord knows the Mets need help in the bullpen, with a major league-worst E.R.A. Remember, Alderson clearly identified this need, but with so little to spend, could only add a couple of middling arms in Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch.
The two most valuable relievers in 2012 that Alderson could have signed last winter, it turns out, were Fernando Rodney, with the Tampa Bay Rays, and former Met Darren Oliver, with the Toronto Blue Jays. Rodney signed for one year, $2 million. He's been absolutely unhittable, with a 0.82 E.R.A. over 43 2/3 innings, 43 strikeouts against five walks. He cut his walk rate from 7.9 per nine to 1.0 per nine. And Oliver, 41, keeps getting better, pitching to a 1.23 E.R.A.
There was almost no reason to believe Fernando Rodney would be this good. Oliver stood a better chance of continued excellence. But let's assume, for benefit of this exercise, that Alderson could have gotten each of them for what they ultimately signed for.
That's $6.5 million of his budget gone, for 3.5 extra wins. Up from 70. Still not contending yet.
If he'd gone the starting pitcher route instead, Hiroki Kuroda was available on a one-year, $10 million contract he signed with the Yankees. Kuroda's been worth 3.3 wins. But he's so expensive, the Mets could only afford to bring in Kuroda and Rodney before exhausting their budget. That means no Oliver, and no anybody else, such as Scott Hairston in the outfield. So only an additional five wins, up from 70. No dice.
But let's give Alderson the 3.5 wins at $6.5 million from Rodney and Oliver, and add in the two-year, $10 million deal Chris Capuano signed with the Dodgers. That deal pays him just $3 million in 2012, and he's been worth another 2.4 wins. Signing him would have required Alderson to anticipate that a pitcher with one healthy season in his past four would stay healthy again, and improve significantly on his 2011 season with the Mets.
And it largely exhausts his budget before getting to a single position player, while adding around 5-6 wins to what was a 70-win team on paper. With perfect hindsight, and the ability to cherry-pick the very best value players retroactively.
The best position player, value-wise, that Alderson could have added last winter was Edwin Encarnacion, who has been worth slightly more than three additional wins for his team (according to the Wins Above Replacement statistic), for $2.5 million. But he's accrued that value while playing third base, which is, after all, occupied. Albert Pujols has been worth around three wins, and was available last winter, but he signed a ten-year, $240 million contract. Even his 2012 deal alone, for $12 million, takes up the entire offseason budget.
The best value pick the Mets had to possibly replace Duda in right field was Josh Willingham, who signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Twins, and has been worth about three additional wins.
Had Alderson known this, he could have added Willingham, and either Oliver, Rodney or Capuano. His budget only has room for one of them if he signed Willingham, giving him a net total of five wins above the 70 he inherited, no matter which direction he went in. If he'd known that the durable Mike Pelfrey was about to get hurt, and simply signed Capuano instead of Pelfrey, that's another three wins. Still doesn't even get the Mets to a .500 team.
Instead of addressing team needs, Alderson was forced to make bets like Duda learning to play right field, which hasn't happened, and Daniel Murphy learning to play second base well enough to keep his bat in the lineup, which has.
As for Duda's future, he's going to play left field and first base at Triple-A. It is awfully hard to see how he can succeed as a left fielder any more than he can as a right fielder. His failures in right were due to awful mobility for the position, and in left, he'll face the same issue. Ultimately, he's probably a regular designated hitter, and a decent-to-good one, the range of outcomes depending on whether he hits like he did in 2012, or the more effective hitting he provided in 2011.
But since the Mets don't play in the American League, that means Duda's future is almost certainly elsewhere.
Which is just as well: Alderson needs whatever trade chips he can muster to try and improve the team again this winter, with a budget that isn't likely to be any different than it was for him last year. And last year's budget made contending just about impossible.