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The Mets have a Seth Lugo problem

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New York has a lot of things figure out in the offseason, and Lugo’s role is one of them.

MLB: Game Two-Miami Marlins at New York Mets Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Last night’s Mets loss to the Cardinals may have been the final nail in the club’s proverbial coffin. With every single team the Mets needed to lose falling last night, and with the club clinging to a 3-2 lead with six outs to go, they were in a position to help their playoff cause and get right back into the thick of the race. Instead, New York lost another heartbreaker 7-6 in 11 innings, as they fell four back of the second Wild Card with 16 games left to play.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Luis Rojas continues to prove he is in way over his head with some of his managerial choices. The Mets managed two (2!) hits after the first inning. They had a golden opportunity in the tenth, but they squandered it, as Francisco Lindor hit into a double play. Jeurys Familia continues to serve up homers at an alarming rate and has proven untrustworthy in late game scenarios.

But there is one concern stemming from last night’s game that involves a player who didn’t even make an appearance. Seth Lugo, in one of the biggest games of the season, was supposedly unavailable, likely because he pitched on both Saturday and Sunday. With a day of rest in between outings, he was still not able to take the ball in a must-win game.

This is nothing new. Lugo was diagnosed with a partial tear in his UCL back on April 4, 2017. Since then, the club has handled him delicately in an effort to preserve his health and have him available when needed. He very rarely pitches on back-to-back days: He has only done so five times since the All Star Break and nine times all season. He very rarely pitches two innings in an outing: He has only done so four times in 2021, and he has only gone more than one innings six total times. He has not gone beyond one inning of work since August 12. He never records more than six outs. You would have to go back to May 4, 2019, for the last time Lugo went beyond two innings as a reliever.

The club has treated Lugo like a fragile Faberge egg essentially since he found a full-time role in the bullpen and established himself as a late-inning weapon, and it’s understandable as to why. But on a night when you needed arguably your best reliever not named Aaron Loup on the mound in the eighth inning of a must-win game, Lugo needs to be available. Without inside knowledge, it’s impossible to know for sure whether Lugo told Rojas he wasn’t available, or whether Rojas made the call on his own. But there are only 17 games left in the season, and you cannot be saving Lugo for anything bigger down the road. This is the time when you need your horses to step up and pitch, and if he’s unable to do that, then what exactly are we even doing here?

I am aware that it is perhaps unfair to blame Lugo for this, because he cannot control his injury issues and certainly does not want to pitch with these restrictions. He is having another solid year after a subpar 2020 that saw him crack the rotation once again. In 40 appearances this season, he owns a 3.07 ERA, a 3.43 FIP, and a 1.24 FIP, with 46 strikeouts and 16 walks in 41.0 innings pitched. In 229.2 innings as a reliever since his debut, he owns a 2.63 ERA with 256 strikeouts. He is a vital cog in this bullpen.

But the team has a serious decision to make in 2022: Can Lugo be trusted? Are you content to build a bullpen around Lugo if you cannot trust that he can pitch two nights in a row, or three times in four nights, or four times in five nights in a pennant race? What happens if the Mets make the playoffs and they need Lugo to pitch three straight games? You cannot have your best arm unavailable in crunch time, unless you build a flawless bullpen with five or six dependable arms, and that has rarely been the case for the Mets.

Lugo is turning 32 years of age this November. He is no longer young up-and-comer, and his arm troubles are not likely to magically vanish overnight. He has one year of arbitration left before hitting free agency. I am not here to argue that the team needs to non-tender Lugo, because the Mets with Lugo on top of his game are better than the Mets without him. But if you are bringing him back, you need to be damn sure the rest of the bullpen is bulletproof. Loup needs to be back. Edwin Díaz cannot be as inconsistent as he has shown in the second half. Trevor May needs to be more reliable, to the point where you can trust him to take the eighth night in and night out without long stretches of futility. And you probably need three more sure-things back there so that Lugo’s role is less important.

Perhaps this problem goes away with a skipper who is simply better at managing the bullpen and making these in-game decisions, or perhaps it goes away with a new front office that actually puts thought and care into building a strong bullpen. But the fact remains: If you have to dance around Lugo’s availability, that could become a big problem, and it’s one the club must address early on so that they can put thought into how they want to use him effectively in 2022 in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the team. Whether or not the new decision-makers put enough thought into that is a whole other issue.

This isn’t about this year, because 2021 is almost definitely going to play out as the past four seasons have, without a postseason berth. But the Mets need to start planning ahead for 2022 if they want to break out of their funk and snap their playoff drought. And they need to take a long look at Lugo and decide whether they can live with him not being able to pitch when you need him most.