Seth Lugo has never made his desire to return to the Mets’ starting rotation a secret. Back in March, when spring training was still underway and we were previewing a normal baseball season, I wrote that Lugo had made himself too indispensable out of the bullpen to believe there was much of a chance of seeing him start any games for the Mets in 2020.
A lot has changed since then.
Namely, players had to put their preparations for the season on hold as spring training was suspended and the start of the season was delayed until late July. The players are now back in camp, but pitchers have a much shorter timeframe to stretch out for the season and the ability to do much outside of simulation games is limited. Many of them, Lugo included, threw in the interim, but any sort of makeshift at-home workouts can never replicate actual game play.
During the time off from baseball, Lugo continued to prepare as if he were playing as season. He ran regularly and threw at least twice a week, all while spending time with his newborn son James. The broken toe that was plaguing him during the first iteration of spring training is also no longer an issue. “I’m ready to go,” he said, feeling as if his stuff is in “midseason form.”
There was never any question in Lugo’s mind about opting out of the 2020 season, though, despite having a baby at home. “I live my life to play baseball,” he said during a press conference at the outset of summer camp, “so when they said we were playing, I was ready to go.”
It’s hard to blame a player like Lugo for wanting to assume whatever risks may exist to himself and his family to play baseball in 2020. Despite being the Mets’ most reliable reliever for the second year in a row in 2019—posting a 2.70 ERA over 80 innings for the Mets and collecting 21 holds and six saves—he has yet to see a substantial financial payoff in what has been a solid career thus far. He just came off his first year of arbitration and will not be a free agent until 2023. If he continues pitching the way he has the past couple of years, there is big money on the table for the taking and he knows it.
He also knows that the circumstances of the shortened season may mean more opportunities to realize his long-held rotation goals than he could have anticipated back in March. The Mets are now without Noah Syndergaard this season, leaving them with very little depth behind their existing five-man rotation, should one or more pitchers fall ill or get injured. There are also very few off days built in to the 2020 schedule, meaning that spot starters will be more essential than ever to a team’s success.
It’s also possible that one or more of the Mets’ starters will not be fully stretched out to start the season and the team will have to get creative with piggybacking pitchers. With his starter’s arsenal—featuring his wipeout, high spin rate curveball—and his ability to go multiple innings, Seth Lugo is the ideal candidate to fill this role for the Mets. However, with a few Mets relievers—Robert Gsellman, Brad Brach, and Jared Hughes—already beginning the season on the IL, the Mets may think themselves too thin in the bullpen to allow Lugo to take any spot starts or put in too much work in long relief when he is needed for high leverage outs.
Regardless of the role he actually plays in 2020, of all the pitchers on the Mets’ staff, Lugo is the most versatile. And the fact remains that he enters the 2020 season as an established relief ace and indispensable member of the Mets’ pitching staff, such that it is pretty hard to envision the team having much success if he is one of the unlucky players to see time on the COVID-19 injured list this season.