While the likes of Michael Conforto and Noah Syndergaard are getting the lion’s share of the buzz—deservedly so—when it comes to players to whom the new Cohen regime should offer an extension, Seth Lugo deserves some attention in the conversation as well. It may seem counterintuitive to talk about giving a guy an extension as he’s coming off his worst big league season statistically, but that is precisely why it is arguably the smartest time to consider it as a “buy low” situation. And when it comes to Lugo’s 2020, the season numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Due to a combination of injury (Noah Syndergaard), an opt-out (Marcus Stroman), and ineffectiveness (the rest of the rotation aside from deGrom), Lugo was forced into service as a starting pitcher in late August, removing him from the bullpen role he had excelled in over the previous two seasons. At that point in the season, he had an ERA near 2 and seemed every bit the pitcher he had been the season before in his best year as a major leaguer when he posted a 2.70 ERA and boasted 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings. However, things went downhill for Lugo as a starter as he was stretched out and going deeper into games and two disastrous outings inflated his ERA quite a bit in a season full of small sample sizes. Lugo has historically struggled the third time through the batting order, which was always an argument against him as a starting pitcher, but it’s hard to say how much his tribulations as a starter in 2020 can be attributed to that and how much can be attributed to the midseason change in role and all around weirdness of a pandemic-shortened season. Either way, the difference between his performance as a reliever and his performance as a starter in 2020 was stark.
This leaves the Mets with a decision to make about Lugo’s role moving forward. Given the fact that Noah Syndergaard will likely begin the season still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and there is little else in the way of starting pitching behind Jacob deGrom on the Mets depth chart at the moment, the team could choose to keep Lugo in the rotation in 2021. But it is incontrovertible that as a late-inning reliever, Lugo has been elite, and the Mets are certainly in need of elite late-inning relief pitching as well; what team isn’t? Which free agents the Mets are able to sign in Steve Cohen’s first offseason as Mets owner will likely determine which way the Lugo pendulum swings, but I would argue it should swing no more in order to put him in the best position to succeed.
Regardless of how he is used, what cannot be ignored is the simple fact that during his Mets tenure, Seth Lugo has stepped up when others have fallen short and made himself an invaluable member of the pitching staff. The Mets should reward that with a clear role and an extension. Lugo earned $2 million in his first year of arbitration in 2020 and is not due to hit free agency until 2023. However, if he is indeed used as a reliever in 2021 and puts up another year resembling his 2019 season, his price tag is sure to increase sharply. Arguably the same could be said if he is used as a starter and performs at even his career average in that role (4.35 ERA) over a full season. That is why now is the perfect time to lock in the 30-year-old righty’s arbitration years and perhaps tack on another season or another season plus an option for the following season at a reasonable rate.
Lugo’s partially torn UCL is certainly a factor to consider when weighing an extension. However, since the initial diagnosis, he has remained remarkably healthy and the peace of mind an extension would grant him is one reason, I believe, he would be open to remaining a Met rather than testing the free agent market in his mid-30s. It is hard to imagine such a Lugo extension costing more than $15 million or so in total and it would be a worthy investment to solidify the pitching staff in a desperately needed way while rewarding a player who has earned his payday.