Before the Mets’ win over the Nationals yesterday, we learned that Lucas Duda has a stress fracture in his lower back and will be out for the foreseeable future. There’s no exact timetable for his return, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he missed at least a couple of months. There’s hope that he will return, but the Mets are a good team right now.
Finding a suitable replacement for Duda while he’s on the shelf should be a top priority. Let’s take a look at some of the options.
In the organization
The Mets don’t have any obvious replacement for Duda within the organization. They threw out a few ideas yesterday, including getting Michael Conforto some practice reps at first base and using any one of Neil Walker, Alejandro De Aza, or David Wright at the position. None of those players seem like ideal options, as none of them have played first base regularly either recently or ever. Right now, Eric Campbell and Ty Kelly are on the roster, and Campbell figures to get the starts until another solution arrives.
Wilmer Flores is set to begin a rehab assignment tonight as he works his way back from a hamstring injury. He could return as soon as Friday, and he was working on playing first base in spring training. Though he started last season as the Mets’ shortstop, he’s better suited to a corner, and perhaps he could handle the position change relatively gracefully. Beloved and likeable as he is, however, he hit just .263/.295/.408 with 16 home runs and a 96 wRC+ last year. He’d have to hit quite a bit better to come close to replicating Duda’s performance with the bat.
If not Flores, the rest of the organization doesn’t have a ton to offer right now, either. Journeyman Marc Krauss is with the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s but hasn’t hit much better than league average despite having hit seven home runs. He has a 61 wRC+ in 435 major league plate appearances. Jayce Boyd has hit well below league average for Vegas in his first season at Triple-A, where he has spent the bulk of his playing time in left field. He did play a lot of first base in Binghamton last year.
Beyond those two, there’s Dominic Smith, who has gotten off to a nice start in Double-A and is still 20 years old. But he doesn’t figure to get a major league promotion anytime soon. Matt Oberste, a 24-year-old corner infielder who’s also with Binghamton right now, has hit well, too. But again, he doesn’t look like a replacement for Duda.
It’s late May, but yes, there are still free agents—or potential free agents—out there.
Justin Morneau, who had elbow surgery and won’t be swinging a bat until June, remains unsigned. He was productive with Colorado over the past couple of years, at least when he was healthy. Jeff Baker and Corey Hart went unsigned over the offseason, too.
James Loney, who is playing for the Padres’ Triple-A affiliate, is a potential free agent, as Ken Rosenthal pointed out he could leave that organization for a major league deal elsewhere. He’s been a league-average hitter in his major league career but fell short of that last season with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Several first basemen are set to hit free agency this winter, including Pedro Alvarez, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Moss, Mike Napoli, and Mark Teixeira. Jose Bautista, who alongside Encarnacion is the biggest name of the bunch, has played 26 games at first base and another 386 at third base, but he’s played the grand majority of his career in the outfield.
None of those names seem particularly realistic, at least not yet. If the Mets try to get by with what they have or bring in someone like Loney as a temporary replacement, the trade market—and Duda’s long-term health—could become clearer.
Chris Carter, who was non-tendered by the Astros following last season and currently plays for the Brewers, could be another trade candidate. He’s still under control for two seasons after this one, but he got just $2.5 million in free agency. He’s an all-or-nothing hitter who either hits home runs or makes outs. Still, he could be better than any of the options the Mets have available.
There’s not obvious, ideal option out there, but it would be disappointing if the Wilmer Flores experiment first base doesn’t go well and the Mets don’t do anything else. Perhaps Flores will take to the position and improve upon his overall production at the plate last year, but the external options, limited though they may be, look more appealing than the internal options right now.