Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Mets Unplug 2017

By Jeff Kallman

The highest profile moment of Lucas Duda's career happened not when he was hitting one of his home runs but when he helped throw the Mets' World Series survival hopes away in Game 5, 2015.

Top of the ninth. Matt Harvey pleaded to stay in and finish what he started on a night he had his A game, a 2-0 shutout. Except that Harvey walked Lorenzo Cain and fed Eric Hosmer an RBI double. Then manager Terry Collins lifted him for closer Jeurys Familia, who'd already blown two Series saves with one being through no fault of his own.

But then Series MVP Salvador Perez bounced one to David Wright at third, and as Wright threw to Duda at first Hosmer daringly took off for home. A good throw home from first and Hosmer would have been a dead mallard, not to mention the Mets winning 2-1 and living to play Game 6 back in Kansas City.

Except that Duda threw home wild. And Hosmer dove across the plate with the tying run. Leaving the hapless Familia to a third blown save and second that wasn't his fault. Leaving the game to the extra innings in which a no-name named Cristian Colon lined a hanging slider to left in the top of the 12th off a gassed Addison Reed, with a road runner named Jarrod Dyson on second, breaking the tie and opening the gates through which the Royals flooded the joint for game, set, and Series.

"You have to tip your hat," said Duda after that game, in which his sixth inning sacrifice fly made it 2-0, Mets in the first place, the Mets wasting their best scoring opportunity of the night with the bases loaded and nobody out. "It took a lot of [cojones] for [Hosmer] to make that play. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, and I just didn't make a good throw. No excuses."

Duda's most admirable quality is that he was one of the most stand-up of men on the Mets even while being a streaky hitter with solid power whose streaks could thrill you one moment and kill you the next. The latter is what kept him from being a true fan favorite with the Mets. Now Met fans won't have him to kick around once in awhile anymore.

The Tampa Bay Rays are about to learn that up close and personal, having traded minor league pitching prospect Drew Smith to get Duda — in his walk year and likely to test his market after the season — for their stretch run.

Duda won't be playing first base for the Rays with Logan Morrison playing there and having his at-last breakout season. But he will be slotted in as a designated hitter, which was probably his best position after all, considering he's been a serviceable but no great shakes defender at first base. You won't hear him complain yet.

"I'm excited to join the Rays," Duda told reporters. "They're in the hunt. Kind of mixed emotions. There are guys here I've grown pretty close to, and [the Mets] are a first-class organization. I was very proud to be a New York Met, and I'm gonna be very proud to be on the Tampa Bay Rays."

The Rays are only two and a half games off the American League wild card hunt. The Mets are nine games from the last National League wild card slot and thirteen and a half games behind the Nationals in the NL East. Dealing a veteran slugger for a sleeper pitching prospect isn't exactly saying they think they still have postseason hopes.

Smith was rated as the number thirty prospect when the Rays plucked him out of the Tigers' system during the first half, but then he jumped from high A-level to AAA in the when he began looking like an above-average late-innings option. In 45 innings across his jump he has a 40/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.60 aggregate earned run average.

And with the Mets also dealing emergency closer Reed to the Red Sox, they could have targeted Smith to step in and up to a late-game role sooner than next season, even if just to make plans for next year.

Decimated by injuries, the Mets have gone from prohibitive postseason-entry favorites to basket case in which one solid game one day is likely to be followed by a re-enactment of the Frankenstein story with them as the slain doctors. The Duda deal probably meant they hung up the for-sale signs up in earnest.

No, take it back. The signs went up during the All-Star Break, really. They won't say it aloud yet but the Mets' season is just about done and on the wrong side. And they got a small degree of financial wiggle room with the Rays agreeing to take on the rest of Duda's $7.25 million 2017 salary.

Duda and Reed could only be the first Met veterans with expiring contracts to go. Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson, Jerry Blevins (relief pitcher), Neil Walker, and Asdrubal Cabrera also expire at season's end. Bruce is now slotted as a regular and young Michael Conforto's status is far closer to being settled. And, at long enough last, it was when, not if Amed Rosario arrived at Citi Field. They called him up the day of the non-waiver deadline. He picked up two hits in his first two games. Perhaps stud first base prospect Dominic Smith isn't far behind.

Duda's best season was 2014, when he was worth 3.2 wins above a replacement level player and drove in 92 runs with 30 homers, but his career has been pockmarked by inconsistency and injuries, including the stress fracture in his back that killed most of his 2016, allowing him to play only 47 games between the first third of the season and 23 plate appearances in September.

With Colby Rasmus leaving the Rays, reportedly to settle some family issues and rethink his own positioning in the game (a younger brother was reported to have retired unexpectedly at age 24, from the Cardinals' system in which Rasmus himself began), Duda provides the Rays with fill-in thump. Just how much remains to be seen.

Two days earlier, assorted reports suggested Duda a trade candidate for the first time in his career despite what some said was a cooling market for him and fellow veterans Bruce and Granderson. Another report suggested the Rays had eyes for both Duda and Reed.

They now have Duda. They got solid relief prospects for Reed. At this stage, anything would be an improvement for the Mets. For the Rays, with no commitment to Duda beyond the rest of this season, anything including the best of what's left in Duda already is.

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