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Seth Lugo enters the 2020 season as an established relief ace for the Mets

The self-professed “old school” righty may consider himself a starter at heart, but he’s made himself indispensable out of the bullpen.

New York Mets v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Ever since he burst onto the scene in 2016 along with Robert Gsellman, helping the Mets secure a Wild Card berth that season as he started eight games down the stretch, Seth Lugo has dreamed of getting back into the Mets’ rotation. Mostly, that dream has not come to pass. In the intervening years, he has made some spot starts and been largely effective, but it has been out of the bullpen where his production rocketed to the next level.

Over the past two seasons, as the Mets made free agent signings and trades in an attempt to strengthen a part of the team that has been a stark weakness in recent years, Lugo has succeeded where those other efforts have failed. As relievers with bigger names and more impressive resumes have been injured or ineffective, Lugo was reliably excellent. His age-29 season—where he pitched exclusively as a reliever for the first time—was his best in the big leagues. Over 80 innings in 2019, he had a 2.70 ERA and a 150 ERA+. He earned 21 holds and six saves, eventually taking over the closer role from the struggling Edwin Diaz entirely. His transition to a bullpen role saw his strikeout rate climb and his walk rate diminish, due an uptick in velocity on all of his pitches and a better ability to use his lethal curveball in key spots. Despite how he may envision himself, it is clear he has cemented his role as a key high-leverage relief weapon for the Mets.

Given the composition of the Mets’ pitching staff this season, however, with Michael Wacha and Steven Matz seemingly battling for the final rotation slot—or sharing it—the Mets have flirted with the idea of an opener to perhaps utilize Wacha, Matz, and Lugo most effectively. Lugo has made it clear that he is unequivocally opposed to that idea.

“I don’t think an opener belongs in baseball,” said Lugo earlier this month to the New York Post. “Starters are starters. I’m old school. I like the game the way it’s meant to be played.”

But Lugo has also said that he doesn’t focus on throwing in specific innings. He wants to throw in every inning because every inning is important. Last season, the one wrinkle with Lugo was his inability to pitch on consecutive days, which was a liability for the Mets at times when they found themselves lacking any other consistent option. However, Lugo said that this issue was more about pitching multiple innings than it was about pitching back-to-back days with the specter of his partially torn UCL hanging over his head.

“The last couple of years my availability wasn’t about the elbow,” he said. “It’s about when I throw multiple innings. I am not going to throw multiple innings and then throw again the next day, that is unrealistic. Guys who do that don’t make it very long in this game.”

For right now though, Lugo isn’t focused on his elbow. He’s focused on getting ready for the season after a broken pinky toe he sustained in his hotel room shortly after he reported to spring training delayed his spring debut. He took the mound in Grapefruit League action for the first time on Monday, tossing a scoreless, hitless fourth inning against the Marlins with one strikeout.

“He’s healthy, he’s out there and he threw the ball like he does. It was a big outing for him,” said manager Luis Rojas after the game.

Lugo said that the toe “hurts pretty bad after running a lot,” but it does not affect him pitching or fielding, which is the important thing. And he did not feel pain during his outing on Monday. Both player and manager seem confident that the toe is not a problem heading into the season.

As for whether he’ll be used as an opener, closer, multi-inning fireman or some combination of all three, that remains to be seen. What is abundantly clear is that regardless of what situation he finds himself pitching in, Seth Lugo is absolutely essential to the bullpen’s success in 2020.