This winter the Mets will be looking to fill a Zack Wheeler sized hole in the rotation. Wheeler is likely to leave New York for greener, money colored pastures where a team is expected to ink him to a deal in the neighborhood of a nine-figure contract.
This has led the fanbase to speculate with who and how ownership will replace him. A realistic option, as mentioned previously could be Cole Hamels. Although some more optimistic fans might be holding on to hope that the Mets could be in the running to sign a top tier starter or even potentially lure Wheeler back, there are not many signs pointing in that direction.
With the Wilpon’s reluctance to spend big on the free-agent market the fans should expect a low profile and budget-friendly move. This has steered the conversation in the direction of transitioning Seth Lugo back into the rotation. There are several reasons as to why that should not be the answer to the Mets’ current problem.
For starters, let’s state the obvious: the Mets bullpen was nothing short of disastrous last season.
The abysmal seasons of Edwin Diaz and Juerys Familia have been well documented. 2018 off-season acquisition Justin Wilson spent a large chunk of the season on the Injured List. Robert Gsellman underwhelmed and eventually found himself on the Injured List as well. The remaining group of relievers who saw significant time included Luis Avilan, Tylor Bashlor, Drew Gagnon, and Chris Mazza. None of which made the most of their time on the big league roster either.
Outside of Justin Wilson who bounced back well after his injury, Lugo was the lone bright spot out of the pen. He sported a 2.70 ERA which was good for the 7th best reliever in the NL. He threw 80 innings which was the 4th highest mark set by an NL reliever. He struck out over eleven batters per nine innings and in the second half of the season he closed out every game for Mickey Callaway in which he was available. The Mets cannot afford to remove their lynchpin in the bullpen to fill a hole in the rotation when they can go elsewhere for it.
Second, the Mets have been down this road before and the results weren’t exactly spectacular. Lugo was last a full-time starter back in 2017. So we will have to defer to that season to compare his ability as a starter to what he is capable of doing as a reliever. From 2018 to 2019 Lugo has posted an ERA of under 2.70. His last season as a starter it was two runs higher at 4.71.
This stems from the luxury a reliever has of being able to spend all his energy in short spurts rather than having to draw it out over the course of six or seven innings.
In 2017 as a starter, Lugo’s fastball velocity hovered right around 92 MPH per FanGraphs.
In 2018 and 2019 as a reliever it is nearly three MPH faster, sitting just below 95 MPH.
Lugo’s fastball becomes that much more effective out of the bullpen when he can couple it with his elite curveball. Not having to plan for six or seven innings, Lugo is able to ramp up the fastball at any point, occasionally getting it up to 98 MPH. This is why in 2017 his strikeout per nine innings was a pedestrian 7.5. In 2019 it skyrocketed to 11.7. Simply put, Lugo’s “stuff” is better out of the bullpen. He has thrived there since 2018 and it would be detrimental to the team to remove him from this role.
Sporting the 4th highest WAR for a reliever in the entire Major League last season, Lugo is far too valuable of a piece to take this gamble with. If the Mets wish to contend in 2020 (which ownership states they want them to do) they cannot cut corners and pinch pennies by slotting Lugo in the opening day rotation. He must continue to be used in high leverage spots late in games whether they are in the 7th inning or 9th inning.
New manager Carlos Beltran has the luxury of being able to pitch Lugo for multiple innings or use him to close out games if he sees fit. Not many teams can say they have a reliever as versatile and effective as Lugo.
The Mets must not sacrifice this late-inning advantage for a less effective Seth Lugo every 5th day.