SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Seth Lugo is a bullpen weapon. Seth Lugo potentially projects to be a No. 3-type starter by possessing a strong four-pitch mix.
Lugo’s versatility provides what Brodie Van Wagenen termed “a unique opportunity” to let the market dictate how the Mets will configure their pitching next season. The Mets are canvassing which starters and relievers are available in trades and free agency and their costs. Whichever desired player can be obtained within the Mets’ budget will dictate what role Lugo will play next year. Land relievers, he starts. Bulk up the rotation, he returns to the bullpen.
As always money matters. Van Wagenen would not divulge his 2020 payroll. But the Mets are near $190 million projections for luxury tax purposes and ownership does not want to get much closer to the $208 million threshold. Which is why you hear the word “creative” a lot with the Mets. Translation: can the Mets find a way to, for example, trade Jed Lowrie’s $9 million as part of a deal to take on money and stay relatively payroll neutral?
It also revolves around the Mets asking Lugo and Robert Gsellman to prepare to enter spring training as starters. Of that duo, Lugo has the higher ceiling and more interesting pitch mix. But his value to the pen is substantial.
Thus, part of the Mets’ decision-making process includes doubling down on the idea that Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia had bad years in 2019 rather than that they are now bad pitchers. The Mets think both still possess high-end stuff and the team says it is working with the duo to make refinements to allow that stuff to flourish again. In Van Wagnen’s words, “We have total confidence they will be successful next year.”
So what do the two roads offer?
Lugo starts — Can Lugo endure 150-plus innings health-wise? The Mets believe it could be easier on the righty to know he is working every five days rather than the more regular usage in a pen. Also, would stuff that plays so wonderfully in relief have the same life and deception if Lugo had to persevere over 100-ish pitches rather than 20-30?
If it does, Lugo has the repertoire. He basically uses a starter’s arsenal in relief and has the ability to break the ball both ways and challenge hitters up and down in the zone. In 2020, Lugo would slot in for Zack Wheeler, who probably is signing a big deal somewhere else (remember how close the Mets are to the tax threshold, throwing real doubt on their statements about potentially re-signing the righty). Still, Van Wagenen said of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman and Steven Matz that “one to four (the Mets rotation) remains as good as anyone in baseball.”
And with Lugo this can’t be overstated in importance for the Mets: If he is a No. 3-ish starter for the next three years until his free agency, he would cost about $25 million in that period. The savings derived from that is substantial when they have to consider a rotation moving forward with Wheeler likely gone this year, Stroman due to be a free agent after 2020 and Syndergaard and Matz after 2021.
Finding relief in the market is generally less costly than starters, Again the big “IF” here is that if Diaz and Familia can handle the final six outs, then the Mets could, say, buy someone such as Daniel Hudson to work with Justin Wilson and Gsellman to get to Diaz and Familia.
Lugo relieves — This is the safer play. It provides a complement to Diaz and Familia to dominate the late innings if all goes well and a security blanket if Diaz and Familia cannot shake 2019.
My sense is the Mets would be better in 2020 with Lugo in the pen, but better situated from 2020-22 if Lugo started. When I proposed that hypothesis to Van Wagenen, he said, “We won’t sacrifice 2020 for global economics.”
But keeping Lugo in the pen means the right starter falling at the right price to the Mets. To me, Rick Porcello is ideal and well known to key Van Wagenen lieutenant Allard Baird from their time together in Boston. Even last year, at his worst, Porcello was an innings eater, which would work fine in the fifth spot if the Mets’ pen is deep with Gsellman and Lugo joining the others. And if Porcello is right — he won the AL Cy Young as recently as 2016 — he can be a front-end starter.
If not Porcello — who also brings leadership, accountability and familiarity working in a big Northeast market — would the Mets gamble on Michael Pineda’s high-end stuff coming off a PED suspension, hoping again that if it played right he has No. 3 talent? Should they bet on Alex Wood, who hardly pitched last year for the Reds due to a back injury, but had a 3.20 ERA for the Dodgers in 304 innings between 2017-18?
The Mets get to internally debate all of this because of Lugo’s perceived versatility.