If New York Mets fans know anything, it’s controversy. Controversy, both, on and off the field.
From the Jackie Robinson Rotunda—a Citi Field tribute to the legacy and immeasurable impact of the former Brooklyn Dodgers’ great—out to the ballpark’s outfield dimensions.
From taking umbrage with the social life of a certain injured bachelor, to challenging the professional dedication of a first-time father on paternity leave.
From the ownership level all the way down to the roster, recent Mets history is muddled by controversy, controversy and more controversy. Some of it, largely inconsequential. The direct result of years of frustrating play.
Much of it, however, highly apparent to the emotionally and monetarily invested Mets-faithful on a daily basis. A predictable side effect of contradictory information.
Like the inauspicious financial constraints of today, for instance. Or what to make of the amorphous statements concerning the payroll of tomorrow.
If Mets fans know anything, in fact—it’s that we really don’t know anything. Look no further than the position of first base.
A disconcerting situation at first base is nothing new in Queens. The position has become something of a black hole in New York’s everyday lineup after being vacated by Carlos Delgado in 2009.
Since then, Mets first basemen have combined to post a .776 OPS. That’s below the league average (.784) and good for just 21st in baseball over the same span.
Last year’s production—when Mets first basemen (.721 OPS, 24th in MLB) slashed an abysmal .234/.353/.368 line—reveals an even grimmer reality.
And by that I mean quite effortlessly and voluntarily perpetuated.
Should you choose to heed the often ambiguous words of manager Terry Collins, Duda will assume the starting role from now—well—for now, anyway.
That was April 3. But Davis was chosen to start April 6, 10 and 12, of course.
And—oh, that’s right—Josh Satin will receive the nod against left-handed tossers.
So, to recap: Duda is the Mets starting first basemen moving forward, assuming the starting pitcher is a righty and so long as Davis isn’t.
Time to make some sense of this first-base quandary.
The Case for Lucas Duda
Duda is one of the most anomalous and polarizing assets the franchise owns, despite strongly fitting the mold of the Mets’ organizational hitting philosophy.
He knows how to draw a walk. He has demonstrated raw power potential. Best of all for the cash-strapped Mets, he’ll remain affordably under team-control until 2017. There is little doubt that the 28-year-old has the potential to do some damage with the bat, even if he has still yet to put it all together.
But above all else, Lucas Duda is mostly classified as a man without a position.
A season-ending injury that couldn’t have come at a worse time for Davis last year presented Duda with a new lifeline of sorts. It allowed Duda to slide back into his “natural” position at first base after a dreadful 233-game failed experiment in the outfield that—quite frankly—lasted about 233 games too long.
It also turned out to be a relief for everybody involved, not just the Mets fans forced to cringe each time a ball was hit in Duda’s direction.
The hulking, soft-spoken Duda even addressed his return to first base with Kristie Ackert of the NY Daily News at the time.
“I’m much more comfortable at first,” Duda said. “That takes the pressure off of me.”
It’s important to note that Duda was actually an above average, corner-outfield bat. This was the source of the decision to give him a shot at a new position. His ability to create runs, however, greatly paled in comparison to the runs he cost his team defensively.
Is Duda’s hitting prowess enough to produce a net gain as a first baseman? Expectations are even greater at the more offensively demanding position of first base.
Nobody expects him to be Keith Hernandez with the glove. But assuming even just league-average defense, Duda will have to provide more offense to truly deserve the longterm starting job.
On one hand, critics point to a .223 batting average in 2013 and see a four-A player without a position. His inability to drive in runs was even more damning. In 100 games, Duda had just 33 RBI. His batting average sat at an inexplicably low .145 with runners in scoring position.
The Mets, conversely, believe that Duda has the tools to be a productive major league hitter—and it’s no coincidence that advanced metrics tend support such a sentiment.
There may even be something to be said for Duda’s claim that playing first base has allowed him to relax. He owns an .808 OPS with 27 extra-base hits in 80 career games as a first baseman. There’s always a decent chance those numbers are merely a small-sample-size mirage that will eventually normalize, however.
Duda Splits, by Position
Most importantly, Duda has as much to prove as any player currently on the roster.
While he actively learns first base, Davis has long mastered it. And while Duda may have 30 home-run potential, Davis has already done it at the major league level.
The starting job is now Duda’s to lose, regardless.
If sustained over the full course of a season, Duda’s 117 OPS+ in 2013 would have been good enough for seventh among all qualified National League first basemen.
It’s up to 122 in 34 plate appearances this year.
The Case for Ike Davis
There’s plenty to like about Davis.
At a young age he displayed the ability to draw walks, hit for power and field his position as well as anyone in the game. Scouts saw it, coaches saw it, players, analysts and fans all saw it.
Can that be fairly dismissed? Was it merely a fluke?
When Davis was selected with the 18th overall pick in the 2008 MLB Draft the Mets believed their search for a first baseman was over.
In Davis they possessed a slick-gloved first baseman with a sweet left-handed stroke. So sweet that Baseball America deemed him the No. 3 power hitter in all of college baseball.
A future franchise cornerstone with a major league pedigree, destined to anchor the right side of the infield opposite David Wright defensively while providing the sorely needed protective impetus behind Wright in the lineup offensively.
Davis appeared just as good as advertised upon arrival, posting a 115 OPS+ (OPS+ is adjusted for ballpark factors) as a 23-year-old rookie in the first 147 games of his major league career.
When Davis burst out of the gate in 2011 to a sizzling 156 OPS+ start, Mets fans were downright giddy. New York had a young, undisputed starting first baseman for years to come.
Or so it seemed.
What they got instead was a curious case of what-the-hell-just-happened?
Ike Davis, by Year
Davis went on to injure his ankle in a freak collision with Wright, cutting his 2011 season short after only 36 games.
He returned in 2012—a shell of his former self—for a dismal first-half before ultimately salvaging his season with 20 homers after the all-star break. His strong second-half inspired hope among those around the franchise.
Surely whatever woes plagued Davis following his injury were behind him for good.
The inspiration would prove short-lived, however, and a struggling Davis was sent down to attempt to regain his seemingly long-lost form early in 2013.
Now entering his physical prime, that once limitless potential appears to have somehow dissipated. As for whether or not it will ever be rediscovered, only time will tell.
But a first baseman who can hit 30 home runs while playing gold glove-caliber defense is tough to come by and—at 27-years-old—even tougher to give up on.
Creativity is a crucial component of successful roster-building. Without the monetary capabilities to cover up each blemish in a single offseason, priorities reign supreme.
Such was the case when the Mets entered this past offseason with an endless list of holes and question marks for Sandy Alderson to address all over the diamond.
After carefully comparing the market against the Mets long host of demanding issues, first base fell to the wayside and Alderson opted to stick with his in-house options.
The position’s current candidacy is comprised of Davis, Duda and Satin, all of whom leave plenty to be desired. Of the three, only Satin can hit lefties. Highly pronounced lefty-righty splits made a first-base platoon the logical remedy.
It has long been rumored that, both, Davis and Duda can be had via trade should the right package present itself.
For how long the Mets decide to stick with what they’ve got remains to be seen. The same can be said about going the platoon route in general.
If—and it’s a rather substantial if—their career splits translate predictably, they just might be able to form a formidable combination of offensive production. It’s unclear, however, how strict implementation and irregular at-bat opportunities will play out over a full season.
Since 2011, the offensive production of Davis (111 OPS+) and Duda (116 OPS+) are nearly identical. The slight difference is presumably made up for by Davis’ defensive superiority, though advanced metrics suggests the gap between he and Duda—the first base version—may not actually be so wide.
Maybe Davis will flash enough talent for a team to fancy him an intriguing reclamation project.
Maybe Duda is destined for the American League where he can DH and provide left-handed power off the bench.
Maybe one of them will even help net Alderson and the Mets a respectable shortstop in return.
Ideally , somebody will step up and end this madness, claiming the starting job for good. Or at least until Dominic Smith is ready crack the big league roster.