Lucas Duda is the Biff Loman of baseball with less defensive range, doomed to jobs he's simply not capable of doing by the New York Mets, with unrealistic Biff dreams and a Willy Loman bank account.
Duda should be in his prime years as somebody's perfectly capable first baseman or designated hitter. But the Mets have tried for years now to see him as more than that, something he isn't (an outfielder), as Willy saw Biff: "I'll see him in the morning; I'll have a nice talk with him. I'll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time."
The Mets drafted Lucas Duda in the seventh round of the 2007 draft. He was big, a powerful hitter when they got him, and in 2010 that power finally translated into home runs at Double- and Triple-A. Still, few considered him a top-flight prospect, and for one reason: his only position that made any sense at all was first base.
Or as Baseball America wrote prior to the 2011 season of Duda: "Duda's best defensive position is first base because he's a poor, lumbering runner with below-average range and arm strength in left field."
I have such thoughts, I have such strange thoughts. --Willy Loman
As you may remember, the 2011 Mets weren't in any place to pick and choose talent to put on the field, well into the post-Madoff years. He played some left field, some right field, along with first base when Ike Davis went down with an injury that turned into a season-ending bout with misdiagnosis and rare form of lung-centered fungus. (It's been a fun few years in Queens.)
And Duda hit, posting a 137 OPS+ in his age-25 season. But let there be no mistaking his outfield play: it was horrific. He played 335 1/3 innings in right field for the 2011 Mets. His UZR/150 was -41.3 runs. Just to put that in perspective, it was the worst performance by any outfielder with at least 300 innings logged in baseball that year. It was significantly worse than any single-season UZR/150 Adam Dunn put up in the outfield, ever.
This is no knock on Lucas Duda. At all. The guy worked like crazy to get to the major leagues. He figured out how to hit major league pitching. He gave it his best-no manager or coach ever criticized Lucas Duda's effort.
The guy just wasn't an outfielder.
He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong. --Biff Loman
The Mets, destitute as ever heading into 2012, still needed outfielders. They had Ike Davis, who they presumed to be back and better than ever from his misdiagnosed leg injury and Valley Fever.
So there went Lucas Duda, gamely trudging back out to right field.
The experiment lasted 96 games. Duda, to his credit, found consistency in the field. His 2012 UZR/150 was -41.3, identical to his 2011 mark in right field. That mark ranked lowest of any fielder with 600 innings logged, and by an enormous margin, one it is safe to say Lucas Duda couldn't cover.
And Duda's offense suffered in 2012, his OPS+ falling to 99. You'd see him in the clubhouse, clearly uncomfortable with his failures in the outfield. Fans would get on him, too.
Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be? --Biff Loman
I listened to Mets manager Terry Collins admit the idea of Lucas Duda as an outfielder no longer made any sense in July 2012.
"To be honest, I told him 'we're gonna put you back where you're comfortable,'" Collins explained. "Let's see if he can concentrate more on his offense, because that's what's gonna get him back here."
Still, it turned out Ike Davis had some aftereffects from a season missed due to misdiagnosed leg injury and rare fungal disorder. So Lucas Duda remained useful to the Mets as an Ike Davis security blanket as the team approached the 2012 offseason. Still, there was no way the Mets would subject Duda, themselves and the fans to more Lucas Duda outfield play, right? Mets GM Sandy Alderson, famously asked about his outfield in November 2012, replied, "What outfield?"
But also, right, "What money?", so spring rolled around without an outfielder added on a major league deal. And that's when necessity proved to be the mother of invention. Terrible, terrible invention.
The Mets didn't quite know what they had in Ike Davis, still. And after all, Duda had failed in ... right field, mostly. Maybe his utter lack of range or decent throwing arm wouldn't hurt so badly in ... left field!
Thus began: Lucas Duda, every day left fielder.
Sure, maybe we could buy a ranch. Raise cattle, use our muscles. Men built like we are should be working out in the open. --Biff Loman
It went about as well as could be expected. That is to say, he hit, and hit pretty well, posting a season OPS+ of 118. But his defense, well, it didn't translate to left field, either. The lumbering running, the poor arm strength, the total lack of range: it doesn't actually matter which side of the center fielder you're flanking when you have these attributes. They're still a problem.
But finally, it seemed, fate had gone Duda's way! Ike Davis struggled horrifically once again, hitting at historically poor levels for any first baseman in 80 years. Finally, Davis was sent to the minors, and ... the Mets moved Daniel Murphy from second base to first, keeping Duda in the outfield to open a position where their best alternative at the time was, and this is a true story, Jordany Valdespin.
Only once Valdespin had been demoted, calling his manager something that's "a no-no with umpires", and, let's be honest, frowned upon by managers as well, only then did we see Lucas Duda get a shot at first base.
A week later, Duda got hurt. He strained his intercostal muscle, missed two months.
Great news for Duda, though! Davis still wasn't hitting! And once Davis strained his oblique, Duda became the Mets' first baseman in September.
In case you were wondering: Duda's UZR/150 in 280 innings at first base in 2013: 3.1. Solidly average there.
All that really remained for the Mets to do was to trade Ike Davis, and first base would belong to Lucas Duda at last.
I bet he'd back you. 'Cause he thought highly of you, Biff. I mean, they all do. You're well liked, Biff. --Happy Loman
It wouldn't mean the Mets had a superstar on their hands, but put it this way: of the 46 players with at least 200 games played at first base between 2011-13, Lucas Duda's 116 OPS+ would rank 19th of 46. And let's not ignore that in reality, he's probably a better hitter than he's been while forced to play the outfield. Or as Duda himself put it last August, "I did feel a little bit of added pressure because of my lack of defensive capability."
There was also this, Duda acknowledging in the same interview what the world had seen for three years: "You know what you're going to get with me out there," Duda said. "I'm a better first baseman. It's clear to see. Anybody can see it."
I tried seven states and couldn't raise it. A buck an hour! Do you gather my meaning? I'm not bringing home any prizes anymore and you're going to stop waiting for me to bring them home! --Biff Loman
On to the 2013 offseason, where the Mets spent much of their time attempting to deal Ike Davis, and what little money ownership provided (significantly less than promised, or even came off the books) on adding outfielders Curtis Granderson and Chris Young.
Sure, the Mets were asking for the moon for Davis, but eventually they'd relent, right? After all, Davis did get demoted last season and posted an 89 OPS+. So they weren't probably going to get Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore and Lee Stevens (though, coincidentally, they did sign Bartolo Colon).
Apparently not. The Brewers, interested in Davis but not at the price of anything particularly valuable, have signed Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay instead, a telling comment on just how valuable Ike Davis is on the trade market itself.
Still, if the Mets wanted to give Ike Davis a shot, they could trade Lucas Duda, right? Since they now know he can play first AND clearly isn't an outfielder.
Or as Duda himself put it last August: "I like DHing. That's a position, too."
For writers who have covered Lucas Duda, and understand most of his interviews are like postgame renditions of 4'33, this was clearly a howling cry for freedom.
Will you let me go, for Christ's sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens? --Biff Loman, to Willy
As it currently stands, there will be no freedom for Lucas Duda's stunted career. Adam Rubin thinks Ike Davis is going to get the bulk of time at first base.
And Sandy Alderson, whose money ran out before he could add outfield depth, or a competent replacement for Davis, or Ruben Tejada at shortstop, or a bullpen, said this of Lucas Duda, long-suffering Lucas Duda, held hostage Lucas Duda: "As of today, I would expect Lucas to get some time in the outfield, but that will be decided just before spring training."
How exactly is that decision going to be made? What's going to happen between now, the end of January, and when pitchers and catchers report in mid-February to erase three years of historically poor defensive play, the admission by both manager and player that Lucas Duda is not an outfielder?
Lucas Duda turns 28 on February 3. Much of what is likely to be his peak as a baseball player was already wasted by force-feeding him into a position he is physically unable to play, then another. No, we probably weren't kept from watching a Hall of Fame career.
But Duda, who has dutifully gone out and given his best to a series of experiments no one had any right to expect would work, and didn't, sounds like he might be kept around, yet again, to serve as an ill-fitting backup plan, a career sacrificed due to the unlikely combination of investments with Bernie Madoff and Ike Davis' failures.
I don't say Lucas Duda is a great man. Lucas Duda never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper for the right reasons. He's not the finest ballplayer that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in the outfield like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.
You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away. Lucas Duda is not a piece of fruit.