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Duda right man for Mets

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Lucas Duda has been putting on hitting displays at Mets camp in Port St. Lucie.

After watching Lucas Duda put on a hitting exhibition during live batting practice Monday, David Wright marveled at the raw power. Jason Bay has observed that same strength on display in the weight room.

“He’s putting the rest of us to shame,” Bay said. “He was bench-pressing the other day. I couldn’t really tell, but I’m pretty sure they were the 120-pound dumbbells he was doing with one arm. You don’t see that very often. I would say 80, you’re doing pretty good on those.

“And not too many guys turned around a [Braves closer Craig] Kimbrel fastball last year. If I recall, he turned about a neck-high one around to dead-center field. He’s just one of those guys that probably doesn’t get enough notice -- a lot probably because of the personality that he has. He doesn’t say much. But he’s a big, strong guy and he can hit.”

Duda, who turned 26 this month, finished first among NL rookies in on-base percentage (.370) and slugging percentage (.482), second in batting average (.292), fourth in homers (10) and fifth in RBIs (50) last year while appearing in 100 major league games. Now, he has moved full time from his natural first-base position to right field, where he will attempt to validate that production over the course of a full season.

Lucas Duda

Lucas Duda

#21 RF
New York Mets

2011 STATS

  • GM100
  • HR10

  • RBI50

  • R38

  • OBP.370

  • AVG.292

“I think I learned a lot, how to carry myself on and off the field,” Duda said. “But I think there’s always room for improvement.”

Terry Collins has Duda penciled into the No. 6 spot in the lineup.

“I think the sky is the limit for him,” said Ike Davis, who has been familiar with Duda since their days playing college baseball, with Duda at USC and Davis at Arizona State. “The amount of talent Lucas has, not a lot of people have what he has. I would say he’s one of the only ones in this locker room that have it. Go out and watch his BP. Not a lot of people hit balls like he does.”

Like deep?

“Or consistent -- the swing, how smooth it is,” Davis said. “The consistency on what his ball does is ridiculous. Obviously you have transfer that into the game. But he already is a good hitter. Once he figures out the pop, he can be one of the best players in the league.”

Davis saw Duda’s potential in college, although that often did not translate into games. Over three seasons with the Trojans, Duda hit .275 with 11 homers in 454 at-bats. Duda primarily served as USC’s first baseman as a sophomore. He then made 51 of his 53 starts his junior season in left field, after which he was drafted by the Mets in the seventh round in 2007.

“Lucas wasn’t very good in college,” Davis said.

Offense too?

“He was a huge guy, and in BP would hit bombs,” Davis said. “But he never really did much in his college career. You could see it in there. It just never came out. The last couple of years it’s really turned on.

“I think he finally has an approach that fits him and it really works -- like a killer, attack-the-ball attitude. He was more of a defensive hitter back in the day. Now he’s totally changed. Now he’s attacking the ball. When you’ve got that size and power, and now you’re becoming the aggressor and swinging at the pitches you want and really looking to do some damage, he can do anything he wants. Who knows? I’m not going to put a number on him because I could be way short of it. You know what I mean?

“Overall he’s gotten better. He’s confident. He’s got a better game plan. He’s bigger, stronger, more experienced.”

Scouts noticed the transition in the minors too, when Duda shifted from slapping balls the other way to turning on inside fastballs with quick hand speed.

Yet even though Collins has outlined his lineup, which includes him in right field, Duda will not accept yet that he has won the job.

“I’m not the right fielder,” Duda said. “The season has not started yet. I’m going to keep on working hard and we’ll see what happens.”

Even after last year?

“No, no,” Duda said. “Nothing is given to you in this game, and anything can be taken away just as soon as you have been given it.”

In right field, Duda figures to benefit from the elimination of the “Mo’s Zone” nook at Citi Field, which reduces the amount of ground to cover and also makes the hops off the wall truer. Still, just as Bay a few days ago forecasted it would not result in a massive change in power production by the Mets, Duda similarly said the ballpark modification will not dramatically alter his outfield proficiency.

“I don’t think it’s that much easier. It’s not going to make me a Gold Glove outfielder bringing the fence in,” the soft-spoken Duda said. “Everybody knows that. I think it’s going to make things a little bit easier as far as playing the ball off the wall.”

Said Collins: “I was well-aware he hadn’t played much right field in his career. I saw him in the minor leagues, when he played outfield, he played left. He was at first base all summer long [in 2011]. Now, all of a sudden, we slam him in right field in the toughest park in the big leagues to play right field in. … Carlos Beltran played great right field. A lot of times you’re compared to the guy you come in [for]. He replaced Carlos. That’s a little unfair. … I saw other clubs come into Citi Field with very good right fielders, and that Mo’s Zone, where it goes back, and that overhang bothered them to where balls got over their heads. The fact that we moved that in is going to help people in right field.”

Duda’s 2011 season ended with a week remaining when he suffered a concussion in St. Louis hitting his head into the wall pursuing an Albert Pujols shot.

“I was feeling good about a week after the season,” Duda said. “It wasn’t anything major. It’s one of those things that happens. It’s not good to miss any time. But I feel I’m ready to go this year.”

Davis, by the way, offers no remorse for sending Duda to the outfield this season.

“No, I don’t,” Davis lightheartedly said. “I don’t feel badly at all.”

Duda experienced well-documented confidence problems when he reached the big leagues, the remnants of which still exist. He began his major league career 1-for-34 before rallying to finish with a .202 average in 2010.

Teammates and Collins say Duda is slowly coming out of his shell, though.

“Of all the things that happened last year, one of the brightest things is Lucas Duda saying, ‘I can play here’ and ‘I belong here,’” Collins said. “You watch him in his workouts, he’s much more relaxed, he’s much more easygoing, he’s a little more vocal. This guy doesn’t say much. So when he starts to have a regular conversation, or he initiates a conversation, you know he’s more relaxed.”

He has received ribbing, though, for being an introvert.

“Just, ‘Duda, stop talking’ or ‘Hey, keep it down,’” Bay said. “He’s opening up a little bit. You’ve got to get him to laugh. He kind of gets to chuckle. He cracks a smile. Actually, toward the end of last year, he was actually flipping a little of it back. It’s a big step for him.

“Obviously he’s a big dude. He’s as strong as an ox. Like Pelf [Mike Pelfrey], he doesn’t really know how strong he is. He’s kind of quiet, flies under the radar for a lot of reasons. But, I mean, he can hit.”