For the past few years, the question regarding Seth Lugo come spring has always been the same: Will he be a starter, or will he be a reliever? Unfortunately for the Mets, he will be neither on Opening Day this year because he will be on the injured list to start the season.
Last weekend, Lugo was the first Met to be bitten by the injury bug in 2021 when the team announced that he would undergo surgery to remove a loose body from his elbow. He had the surgery a week ago and was reportedly in good spirits afterwards. Having pitched the last few seasons with a partially torn UCL, he was acutely aware of how much worse the news could have been for him.
“I’ve been optimistic since [Friday],” Lugo said after the diagnosis. “Last week, I was sitting there thinking, ‘If I tore [a ligament], my career might be over, so this is devastating.’ But I feel really good now that it’s just [the bone spur]. … The worst-case scenario was, I don’t pitch again, ever, so I’m pretty happy.”
Prior to the injury, the answer to the “starter or reliever” question was already all but certain, thanks to the fact that the Mets have actually built quality starting pitching depth on their roster for the first time in years, as Dave Capobianco recently highlighted. With that depth in place, it is unlikely Lugo will be forced into service as a starting pitcher the way he was in 2020. While Lugo has made no secret of the fact that he wants to start, he has enjoyed far more success over his career in the bullpen, and bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen in 2020 was not kind to him.
Coming off the best season of his career in 2019, Lugo picked up where he left off to start the delayed 2020 season, posting an ERA near 2 into late August. However, as he was moved into a starter role to bolster the Mets’ floundering rotation, he floundered as well, putting up two disastrous performances in a row that ballooned his ERA. After allowing just two runs over his first 11 2⁄3 innings, he finished the season with a 9.82 ERA in four starts. Overall, he posted a 5.15 ERA for the season in 16 games, seven of them as a starter. But his strikeout rate—11.54 per nine innings—matched his elite 2019 mark, which is a good sign. While injury will delay the start to his season, keeping him in a consistent relief role will be the best way for the Mets to set him up for success in 2021.
Lugo will be shut down from throwing for six weeks and will likely return sometime in May. In the meantime, it’s a big blow to the Mets’ bullpen, and as of this writing, the Mets have not made a major signing in the reliever free agent market to replace him. While they do have the aforementioned pitching depth to jettison some of their starters to the bullpen, no one else in the Mets’ bullpen has the indispensable combination of wipeout stuff, a starting pitcher’s arsenal, and the ability to pitch multiple innings—and in high leverage situations—that Lugo has. While the Mets are likely comfortable with Edwin Diaz as the closer and Trevor May in the setup role, the likes of Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances are going to have to step up big in key spots early in the season if the bullpen can hope to hold the fort until Lugo’s return.