The Royals on Wednesday signed first baseman Lucas Duda, who played a key, if unintended, role in helping the team win the 2015 World Series, to a one-year contract.
The acquisition puts an end to the Royals’ first-base competition and leaves prospect Hunter Dozier, who has exclusively taken game and practice reps at first base through the first few weeks of camp, without a clear shot at the 25-man roster.
“We’re very encouraged about our first base options going forward,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “But it puts us in a position where we don’t have to rush the process.
"Lucas Duda has been a productive major-league hitter.”
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Terms of the deal weren't announced, but FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman reported the contract is worth $3.5 million with up to $500,000 in incentives.
Duda, 32, split time last year with the Mets and Rays. He hit 30 home runs with 64 RBIs and a .217 average in 127 games.
The Royals see him as a stabilizing presence in the lineup, a veteran who can take pressure off the still-developing bats of Jorge Bonifacio, Jorge Soler and others.
"When Hos, Moose and Salvy and all those guys came up, they didn’t have that,” manager Ned Yost said. “They had to kind of wear it themselves. The more protection that we can provide for the Mondesis, the Solers, the Cuthberts, the Doziers, the Bonifacios, until they get their feet on the ground and can really get hold of that and run with it, it’s gonna be beneficial.”
In 2015, Duda hit .244 with 27 homers and 73 RBIs during the regular season, and batted .400 with six RBIs in a four-game sweep of the Cubs in the National League Championship Series. But in the World Series, Duda hit .263 and made a costly error.
In Game 5, the Royals trailed 2-1 in the top of the ninth inning but had Eric Hosmer at third base with one out. Salvador Perez grounded to third baseman David Wright, who threw to Duda at first base. Hosmer dashed for home and Duda's throw to the plate was off the mark. Hosmer scored and tied the game, which the Royals won 7-2 in 12 innings as they clinched the World Series title.
Ironically, Duda likely will replace Hosmer as the Royals' first baseman. According to FanGraphs, Duda has 7.4 Wins Above Replacement since the start of the 2014 season, while Hosmer has a 7.5 WAR.
After the Royals won the Series-clinching Game 5, Royals first base coach Rusty Kuntz said, “Bless his heart, Duda. He’s a good bat.”
That remark upset Duda.
“I read something from Kuntz, the third-base coach,” Duda told Newsday at spring training in 2016. “He said ‘we’ve got this guy as a DH,’ and again, that’s an opinion. But it’s somebody to me that really doesn’t matter. How many big-league games has that guy played in?”
Kuntz, who appeared in 277 career major-league games and was on the Tigers' 1984 World Series championship team, is now a senior adviser to general manager Dayton Moore.
In this latest turn of events, Duda addressed reporters outside the Royals clubhouse shortly after the official announcement on Wednesday and had to stand next to a framed commemorative issue of Sports Illustrated that features Salvador Perez hoisting the 2015 World Series Championship trophy.
Duda groaned when he saw the image but said there were no hard feelings between him and the Royals organization. New pitching coach Cal Eldred even agreed to give his No. 21 jersey to Duda.
"You’ve got to tip your hat to the guys in that room. They played well and they deserved to win,” Duda said. “As far as me coming here, it was an easy choice. Great group of guys, excited to be here and think we’ve got a real shot to surprise some people.”
To make room for Duda on the 40-man roster, the Royals designated outfielder Billy Burns for assignment.
As for Dozier, he is not out of the mix for the Royals. It just may be better to ease Dozier, who only played in 33 minor-league games last year because of injuries and has spent the bulk of his minor-league career at third base, into the majors.
"When you’re transitioning young players to the major leagues, to break them in on Opening Day with all the expectations, when pitchers are performing really at a very high level and it’s a high energy time in the major leagues, sometimes it’s a little more challenging," Moore said. "So if they transition to the major leagues in June or July, when it becomes a lower energy time, they come to the major leagues with great expectations and they’ve got a lot of energy and a lot of excitement. They tend to adjust a little bit better that way. It doesn’t always happen but it’s just kind of a formula that I believe in and have seen it work."