NEW YORK -- Lucas Duda's batting-practice sessions ranked among the highlights of Spring Training, daily reminders of the hulking slugger's potential. Players and front office executives would gather on back fields to watch Duda reach places most others could not. He made it look easy, as the scouting cliché goes.
But as of Tuesday, Duda will no longer be aiming for the outfield fences at Citi Field. Needing to clear roster space for top pitching prospect Matt Harvey, the Mets optioned their slumping outfielder to Triple-A Buffalo.
"We've got to go with the hot hand right now," manager Terry Collins said.
Duda, 26, was that hot hand for much of the season, breaking camp as the team's starting right fielder and hitting .269 with a team-high 11 home runs from Opening Day through June 24. But he has struggled mightily since that time, hitting .138 with one home run and a .200 slugging percentage, second worst in the league amongst players with at least 75 plate appearances. Duda has also struggled to hit left-handed pitching all season, mustering just a .225 average and .275 on-base percentage against lefties.
That, combined with Duda's sub-par defensive play in right field, prompted a difficult decision that Collins resisted at first. Since the Mets traded Carlos Beltran to the Giants last July, Duda has been their everyday right fielder. On his way to meet the Bisons in Louisville on Tuesday afternoon, Duda was unavailable for comment.
"He was disappointed, probably disappointed in himself as much as anything," Collins said. "But he was certainly driven to say, 'I'm coming back.'"
In Duda's absence, Scott Hairston, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Jordany Valdespin could all see time in right field. Mike Baxter, who is due back from the disabled list this month, should also increase the team's outfield flexibility.
The Mets officially activated Harvey, who will make his big league debut Thursday, before Tuesday's game. They also recalled right-handed pitcher Manny Acosta from Buffalo, optioning fellow right-hander Pedro Beato.
It was an unorthodox move in part because of Duda's service time, and in part because the Mets found success using a different strategy earlier this year with slumping first baseman Ike Davis. Though the Mets discussed demoting Davis around the nadir of his two-month slump, they ultimately decided against it. Since mid-June, Davis has been by far their best left-handed hitter.
But Davis also never struggled on defense to the same extent as Duda, a converted first baseman who never looked quite comfortable in right field. To that end, Duda will play both first base and left field at Buffalo, in an attempt to make his defensive life easier so he can focus on his offense.
"I feel horrible," Davis said. "I really enjoyed playing with Lucas and I think he's an amazing baseball player. I think that it was really bad timing for him to go in a slump."
Still just 26, Duda burst onto the Mets' radar with a breakout Minor League season in 2010, making it all the way to Flushing by September. The next year, he thrived in Buffalo before becoming the team's everyday right fielder when Beltran was traded.
Along the way, questions arose regarding Duda's reserved personality, which radiated a lack of confidence. But the Mets believe that Duda, a career .259 hitter with 26 home runs in 218 games, can rediscover both his confidence and success in the Minors.
"I know Lucas," said Davis, who sent Duda a text upon hearing of the demotion. "He'll go down there and rake, and he'll be back up here pretty soon."