Right-hander Seth Lugo reached free agency for the first time in his career last week and has already drawn plenty of early interest as teams begin charting their offseason gameplan. Will Sammon of The Athletic reports that more than a dozen teams — but not the Mets, yet — have reached out to Lugo. That shouldn’t be surprising for a consistently solid setup man, but what’s more interesting is Sammon’s note that some of those clubs have expressed interest in putting Lugo back into a rotation.
Lugo, 33 this week, has bounced between the Mets’ rotation and bullpen at various times in his career but has been a full-time reliever in each of the past two seasons. In that time, Lugo sports a 3.56 ERA with a sharp 26.6% strikeout rate, a 7.9% walk rate and a 44% ground-ball rate. He’s averaged 94.4 mph on his heater in that time, and Lugo regularly sits near or at the very top of leaderboards for the spin rate on his curveball. Since 2018, FanGraphs’ run values peg Lugo’s fastball as the fifth-most valuable four-seamer among 279 qualified relievers; his curveball ranks seventh, just behind Ryan Pressly.
Generally speaking, Lugo has been a quietly effective member of the Mets’ bullpen for the bulk of his time as a reliever. In exactly 300 career innings out of the bullpen, the right-hander’s ERA sits at 2.91. He’s fanned 27.9% of his opponents and walked 6.9% of them, relying primarily on that fastball/curveball pairing but also mixing in a sinker, occasional slider and a very seldom used changeup (which has been particularly rare in recent seasons).
That mix of four to five pitches, however, is likely what gives some teams the belief that Lugo could find success in a return to a lengthier role. It’s also worth pointing out that while Lugo struggled immensely as a starter in 2020, his overall body of work coming out of the rotation is solid. He’s thrown 194 innings as a starting pitcher in the Majors and pitched to a 4.35 ERA in that time. His 20.9% strikeout rate as a starting pitcher is far lower than his 27.9% mark out of the ’pen, but his 6.3% walk rate is slightly better than his 6.9% rate as a reliever.
Lugo might’ve stuck in the Mets’ rotation for the long haul were it not for some health issues that cropped up early in his big league tenure. Most notably, he was diagnosed with a “slight” tear in his right elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament back in 2017. Any tearing of the UCL, even in minor cases, leads to fear of Tommy John surgery. However, Lugo received a platelet-rich plasma injection in the elbow at the time, opted for rest and rehab rather than surgery, and has not incurred subsequent issues with his elbow ligament. Even in 2021, when he underwent surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow, Lugo indicated that upon examining the MRI results to diagnose the spur, his surgeon “was really impressed with how [the UCL] wound up” (link via MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo).
Lugo tossed just 65 innings in 2022 and has a career-high of 101 1/3 innings pitched — a total he reached in both 2017 and in 2018. As such, it’s fair to question just what type of workload he might be able to build up to in 2023 if he indeed opts to sign as a starting pitcher. That said, there are surely plenty of teams also eyeing Lugo in what has become his traditional late-inning setup role — one in which he’s thrived over the past several years. Interest as a starter could well prove to be a moot point, but it’s a good reminder of the outside-the-box approach that a number of clubs will take when it comes to building out their rotations.
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