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Mets Offseason Position Player Preview: First Base

Lucas Duda is Good but could the Mets go out and find Great production at first base this offseason?

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Lucas Duda is good. Okay, he was not good this past season because he missed four months with a stress fracture in his back. But the two seasons before that, Lucas Duda was a perfectly fine, slightly above average major league starting first baseman who got on base, hit for power, and played above average defense. That’s better defense than James Loney, despite all of the narratives and the 10-year-old Loney scouting reports that people like to ascribe meaning to in 2016 for some reason.

2014 153 596 30 74 92 3 11.6 % 22.7 % .228 .283 .253 .349 .481 .361 135
2015 135 554 27 67 73 11.9 % 24.9 % .242 .285 .244 .352 .486 .359 132
2016 47 172 7 20 23 8.7 % 20.9 % .183 .250 .229 .302 .412 .304 91

With that out of the way, the Mets do have questions surrounding Duda and the first base position this offseason. Any back injury is a concern for a power hitter, especially one like Duda whose power is his calling card. At 31 years old, Duda is certainly not old, but he is in his final season of arbitration. The injury-plagued season should suppress his salary enough to make it a reasonable gamble to bring him back and hope he rebounds to 2014-15 levels, but his future beyond that is certainly unclear.

Given that reasonable cost, the Mets probably shouldn’t non-tender Duda because it would be silly to give away a potential 30 home run bat for nothing. Should the Mets ultimately decide to trade him or just move on, however, there are other options in-house and on the market. Let’s examine them.

Michael Conforto and Jay Bruce (also Wilmer or Wright?)

The top three in-house options to play first base for the Mets on Opening Day aren’t actually natural first basemen. There are rumors flying that Michael Conforto may grab a first baseman’s mitt in order to alleviate the outfield logjam if Yoenis Cespedes returns. It’s a somewhat creative way to go about it, though there’s risk here, namely that Conforto has never played first base before. Putting a career outfielder on the infield isn’t a shoo-in to work, not to mention it could get a promising young hitter hurt. The other risk is that despite that promise, Michael Conforto didn’t hit at all for most of 2016, though the counterargument to that is the Mets need to play Conforto somewhere to find out what he is.

If the Mets are going to try moving an outfielder to first base, however, my first choice would be Jay Bruce. To start, Bruce has a tiny bit of first base experience, having started three games there in 2014. That’s not a ton, but it’s still three more than Michael Conforto has there. The other consideration is that Bruce has graded out as a poor defender in the outfield the past three seasons thanks to declining range.

Jay Bruce Defensive Runs Saved Ultimate Zone Rating UZR/150 Michael Conforto Defensive Runs Saved Ultimate Zone Rating UZR/150
2014 -6 -6.1 -7.0 2014 - - -
2015 +5 -4.2 -3.8 2015 +9 +7.5 +26.5
2016 -11 -8.9 -8.8 2016 +1 +5.4 +10.3

With this in mind, it might make more sense to use Conforto in the outfield given his positive ratings as a defender and younger legs, and transition Bruce to first base, where his offense should play fine anyway. Plus, the ability to play first would give him more versatility on the free agent market next winter.

We shouldn’t forget a natural infield option in Wilmer Flores, who likely will see time at first base regardless of who the regular starter is. Flores played first base for the first time this past season and actually looked pretty good defensively, so it seems likely that his skills hitting lefties will get him starts there.

2014 78 274 6 28 29 1 4.4 % 11.3 % .127 .265 .251 .286 .378 .291 87
2015 137 510 16 55 59 3.7 % 12.4 % .145 .273 .263 .295 .408 .304 94
2016 103 335 16 38 49 1 6.9 % 14.3 % .202 .268 .267 .319 .469 .336 112

Given how his power improved this past season and the fact that he started walking at a more acceptable rate, maybe there’s some offensive upside left in there to make him an option at first on a full-time basis down the road. For now, though, he likely works better there in a platoon role.

Finally, there’s David Wright. Playing first base has been brought up in conversation for a while, and though that would alleviate the issue of his weakened throwing arm, I can’t help but wonder if we underestimate how much a first baseman has to move, lean, bend down, reach, and stretch (okay, maybe you don’t have to do that). Are all of these movements that are required to play an adequate first base actually going to keep his back healthier than if he were playing third base? I can’t answer that, but it’s probably something we should consider before pushing him across the diamond.

Dominic Smith

He won’t be ready for Opening Day, but the presence of Dominic Smith, likely to open the season at Triple-A Las Vegas, is another wrinkle in the Mets’ first base plans going forward. What exactly is Dom Smith and is he their future at the position?

2014 A 126 518 1 52 44 5 9.8 % 14.9 % .067 .321 .271 .344 .338 .321 95
2015 A+ 118 497 6 58 79 2 7.0 % 15.1 % .112 .351 .305 .354 .417 .361 133
2016 AA 130 542 14 64 91 2 9.2 % 13.7 % .155 .329 .302 .367 .457 .371 130

This past season at Double-A was promising, but Smith has become a somewhat divisive prospect among evaluators, more so than recent Mets hitting prospects like Michael Conforto and Travis d’Arnaud, for instance, who have both had their struggles in the majors. MLB first basemen have to hit a lot to be valuable and defense is merely a secondary consideration after the quality of the bat. For Smith, this means he’s either going to have to continue to find more power as he develops or his hit tool and on-base skills are going to have to be top notch (i.e., .300+ average/.350+ on-base percentage).

Whatever happens, the likelihood is that he won’t be fully ready for the majors until midseason this year at the earliest.

Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo

Now to the free agents, where the market just isn’t all that robust this offseason. Edwin Encarnacion will turn 34 years old in January and he’s been a DH for the majority of his time in Toronto, but the man can still hit.

2014 128 542 34 75 98 2 11.4 % 15.1 % .279 .260 .268 .354 .547 .389 151
2015 146 624 39 94 111 3 12.3 % 15.7 % .280 .267 .277 .372 .557 .392 150
2016 160 702 42 99 127 2 12.4 % 19.7 % .266 .270 .263 .357 .529 .373 134

He’s an offensive player and that’s the most important thing you’re looking for at first base. While he’s mostly been a designated hitter in Toronto, this isn’t a David Ortiz or Edgar Martinez situation as Encarnacion played 75 games at first this past season, 59 in 2015, 80 in 2014, and 79 in 2013. The biggest questions surrounding Encarnacion will be his age and the length of the contract he receives. As we saw with Nelson Cruz a few years back, it’s not totally farfetched for an elite power hitter to sustain or even improve upon their career norms, as Cruz did. But would the Mets put down big money for three or four years on that type of risk?

Mark Trumbo is the next best first base option and if you don’t like Lucas Duda, I’m not sure why you would like Mark Trumbo. Like Encarnacion, Trumbo played a fair amount of DH but spent the majority of his time in right field for some reason. First base seems like his long-term home and if this past season is sustainable, then he should be a playable one overall.

2014 88 362 14 37 61 2 7.7 % 24.6 % .180 .274 .235 .293 .415 .308 90
2015 142 545 22 62 64 6.6 % 24.2 % .187 .313 .262 .310 .449 .327 107
2016 159 667 47 94 108 2 7.6 % 25.5 % .277 .278 .256 .316 .533 .358 123

2016 was a career year for Trumbo, though mostly from a power standpoint. If that .277 ISO is going to translate outside of Baltimore, then great. The issue is that aside from the huge uptick in power, Trumbo was the same hitter he’s always been with the mediocre walk rate and major contact issues. Given that he’s already 31 and his on-base percentages have been static (and quite low, at that), Trumbo basically has to hit for as much power as he did this past season to really be a valuable player at first base.

Beyond those two, the other free agent options range from Mike Napoli and Steve Pearce, who hit well in 2016 but have had some ups and downs the past few years, to the likes of Logan Morrison, Mitch Moreland, Brandon Moss, and Adam Lind, who are more along the lines of reclamation projects. Also, there is...

James Loney

Hahaha no, let’s not do that again.

Ultimately, it feels likely that the Mets’ first baseman for 2017 is already in the organization, though Encarnacion would be an enticing proposition. Should the Mets chase that big bat despite his advanced age or should they stick with what they have in-house? If Duda is again the choice this season, what can we expect from him after the back injury and what do the Mets do to quell the outfield logjam? Is Dom Smith the guy going forward or is he just “a guy”? Are there any realistic trade options worth looking into this offseason or going forward?