By William McInerney
The Mets had a lot of injury issues last season, with several important players missing long periods of time, and others playing through nagging injuries for most of the year. One player who missed a significant amount of time was first baseman Lucas Duda, who was limited to 47 games with a back injury, his fewest game total since 2010 when he was a September call up.
The injury in question was a stress fracture in his back, and it kept him out all of June, July and August, and limited him to eight combined games in September and October. Additionally, he was not on the roster for the wild card game, and while manager Terry Collins claimed it was because they were facing a lefty, and Duda struggles as a lefty, I believe it had more to do with his back.
Back injuries are tricky, as even after they heal they often leave lingering pain, especially when they are stress fractures. Most people who injure their backs deal with flare ups of the pain for the rest of their lives. It isn’t always a lot of pain, or constant, but on the days it hits it can be difficult to do simple tasks, let alone play a professional sport. Performing an activity that puts a lot of torque on the back, like twisting 255 pounds of body in a fraction of a second to swing a bat, can often make the pain worse.
So, how much can the Mets rely on Duda in 2017?
The truth is, no one should expect much from Duda. I’ve never been the biggest fan of his, as the only weapon he brings is power, and he’s very streaky in that regard. I know power hitters are often streaky, but Duda takes it to another level. For instance, two years ago he hit 27 home runs, with 20 of those coming in 18 games. That leaves seven home runs in his other 451 at bats. And he hit .244 for the season, which includes the games when he was hitting all those home runs at once.
The reality is when his power is off, as it is in most games, he is a negative hitter for the Mets. Additionally, I’m not a fan of his glove. I’ve seen him miss too many easy picks on throws and you can see by the way the infielders throw they don’t have much confidence in him to make the tough play. However, I digress, as the point here is to explore how the injury will affect him, not his limitations as a baseball player.
Recently, I wrote a piece about why David Wright should retire due to his spinal stenosis diagnosis. I don’t believe Duda is in the same situation as Wright, as a stress fracture is not as serious as stenosis, which is the actual narrowing of the spinal column. However, the Mets do need to be prepared for the possibility of playing without Duda for a large portion of the season, as once back injuries occur people are more prone to getting them again. He’ll need regular rest during the season, and it’s arguably likely he’ll spend time on the disabled list.
Luckily the Mets have something of a backup plan in mind. The Mets have four starting caliber outfielders (arguably five if you include Juan Lagares) for three spots. If Duda is forced to miss time with his back, the easiest solution is to move Jay Bruce down to first, where he has been doing some work, and playing Michael Conforto in the outfield every day. This is a plan that should work very well, as Conforto has a very high upside and has been hitting very well this spring.
The combination of the injury, Conforto’s re-emergence this spring, and Duda’s issues even when he’s healthy combine to create a situation where the Mets should consider trading Duda. In an ideal world they would trade Bruce, but they spent all offseason trying to do that and it appears nobody wants him. Thus, trading Duda and moving Bruce to first would clear a spot to get Conforto’s bat in the lineup on a regular basis. Additionally, Duda is eligible for free agency next year, and considering the Mets have Dom Smith in the minors almost ready to make his major-league debut, it is unlikely Duda is back next year anyway, so why not trade him now, get something back for him, and get Conforto in the lineup.
The Mets need to be prepared to play this year without Duda making regular contributions. Whether that is because of his injury, or a potential trade, it’s a very real possibility Duda will not play a large part for the Mets this year.