Losing Edwin Díaz Is a Gut Punch for the Mets To Absorb

Edwin Díaz
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

However you feel about the World Baseball Classic, there’s no getting around the fact that the Mets were dealt a stunning blow when Edwin Díaz sustained a freak right knee injury on Wednesday night while celebrating Puerto Rico’s victory over the Dominican Republic. On Thursday afternoon, general manager Billy Eppler announced that Díaz had suffered a full thickness tear of his patellar tendon and would undergo surgery later in the day. The timeline for returning from such injuries is around eight months according to Eppler, making it likely (though not completely certain) that Díaz would miss the whole season.

That’s a gut punch, particularly as the Mets and anyone who roots for them no doubt harbored dreams of the soon-to-be-29-year-old closer nailing down the final outs of the World Series. The injury comes just three days after the team confirmed that lefty starter José Quintana will be out until at least July as he recovers from bone graft surgery to repair a stress fracture and remove a benign lesion from the fifth rib on his left side. Three other relievers on the depth chart sustained significant injuries this week as well, with Brooks Raley straining his left hamstring while working out with Team USA in the WBC, Bryce Montes de Oca diagnosed with a stress reaction in his right elbow, and Sam Coonrod suffering a high-grade lat strain. The Mets have had better weeks, to say the least.

Eppler noted that some athletes have returned from patellar tendon surgeries in six months, but that they’re exceptions. I was only able to find a few recent examples of major league pitchers undergoing patellar tendon repairs, and they fit a six-to-nine-month range:

  • Angels righty Garrett Richards suffered a complete tear of his left patellar tendon while covering first base on August 20, 2014, and underwent surgery two days later. He made his 2015 season debut on April 19, about two weeks after Opening Day and about eight months after surgery, and went on to set career highs with 32 starts and 207.1 innings that year.
  • Royals lefty Matt Strahm tore his left patellar tendon on July 1, 2017 and underwent surgery on July 14. He returned to the mound in the minors on April 7, 2018, about nine months later, and was back in the majors a month after that, making 41 appearances totaling 61.1 innings. In late October 2020 while a member of the Padres, Strahm underwent patellar tendon surgery on his right knee, then returned to the mound in the minors on July 24, 2021 (nine months later), and to the majors on August 3, though he made just six appearances before being sidelined by inflammation. He recovered to make 50 appearances totaling 44.2 innings for the Red Sox in 2022.
  • Phillies righty Zach Eflin underwent surgeries to repair both patellar tendons in 2016, with the right one first on August 19. He returned to the mound in the minors on April 6, 2017, and was in the majors 12 days later — again about eight months — though he struggled with his performance and was sent to the minors, where he was hampered by elbow and shoulder strains. Four years later and much more established at the major league level, he underwent another surgery to repair his right patellar tendon on September 10, 2021 and was back on a major league mound for the Phillies’ third game of the season last April 8, about seven months later.

That’s an average of about eight months to return to competitive pitching, but all of those timelines are at least somewhat confounded by the offseason, with surgeries taking place in the July-to-September range and leaving no possibility of a six-month return even if the player were to heal quickly. Richards was the only one whose injury was reported as a full tear, like that of Díaz, and in comparing the two, the distinction of whether the injury is on the same side as the throwing arm probably matters; a pitcher’s back leg (same side) drives velocity, but the stress on the front leg (opposite side) for a pitcher’s stride is hardly trivial both for purposes of controlling pitches and in not overtaxing the arm.

Even allowing for the fact that relievers require less buildup than starters, it does seem very difficult to make an in-season return from such a surgery. If one simply ponders the math of a theoretical best-case scenario, six months would put Díaz in mid-September, leaving time for a late-season tuneup before the playoffs; seven months would land him mid-playoffs if the Mets do get that far.

Any way you slice this, it sucks, particularly for Díaz, who’s coming off an incredible season in which he made his second All-Star team, won the NL’s Trevor Hoffman Award as the league’s top reliever — thus completing the set he began when he won the AL’s Mariano Rivera Award in 2018 — and had his entrance music (Blasterjaxx & Timmy Trumpet’s “Narco”) become a viral sensation. Statistically, he led all relievers who threw at least 50 innings with a 0.90 FIP, 1.69 xERA, 50.2% strikeout rate, 42.6% K-BB%, and 3.0 WAR; his 1.31 ERA ranked fourth among those qualifiers, and his 32 saves (in 35 attempts) ranked fourth in the NL. The day after the World Series ended, he agreed to a record-setting five-year, $102 million deal to remain a Met. It was a very good year.

You don’t easily replace a player like that even given a full offseason and a spend-happy owner, but teams with playoff aspirations deal with closer changes on the fly. Think of Rafael Soriano saving 42 games for the Yankees after Rivera tore his ACL in early 2012, Koji Uehara converting 23 straight save chances with a 0.36 ERA for the Red Sox after Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey needed surgeries in ’13, or Wade Davis replacing the injured Greg Holland for the Royals in mid-’15 and closing out the Division Series, Championship Series, and World Series in October. Stuff happens, and teams deal with it; nobody wins without having several good relievers anyway, and GMs do build their rosters with contingencies in mind.

As to how the Mets will cover the ninth inning, via SNY’s Andy Martino, the team views 37-year-old righty David Robertson and Raley, a 34-year-old lefty, as its top options to match up in save situations. Robertson has saved 157 games in his 13-year major league career, including 20 last year for the Cubs and Phillies. In doing so, he posted a 2.40 ERA and 3.58 FIP with a 30.3% strikeout rate in 63.2 innings, a respectable showing given that he had been limited to 19 games from 2019 to ’21 due to a flexor strain, Tommy John surgery, and a commitment to Team USA for the Olympics (he saved two games and won a silver medal). Raley has just nine career saves, but six of them came last season with the Rays, for whom he put up a 2.68 ERA and 2.74 FIP with a 27.9% strikeout rate in 53.2 innings. Since returning from a five-year stint (2015–19) with the KBO’s Lotte Giants, he’s held lefties to a .213 wOBA, but righties have hit him for a .308 wOBA; last year, the splits were .214 and .247, respectively. Raley’s hamstring strain is reportedly low-grade, and he’s expected to return to action in a few days.

Setup man Adam Ottavino, a 37-year-old righty, has 33 career saves as well, with a high of 11 in 2021 with the Red Sox. Last year while setting up Díaz, he pitched to a 2.05 ERA and 2.85 FIP with a 30.6% strikeout rate in 65.2 innings, saving three games. The Mets may prefer to keep him in that setup role, however.

The free-agent market does have experienced closers still on the shelves such as Archie Bradley, Zack Britton, Ken Giles, and Corey Knebel, but each is there for a reason. Bradley suffered a forearm strain in late September last year, ending what was already an injury-marred season in which he threw just 18.2 innings in the majors for the Angels. Knebel saved 12 games for the Phillies with a 3.43 ERA and 4.46 FIP in 44.2 innings but suffered a shoulder capsule tear. Giles totaled just 4.1 innings last year and a mere eight over the last three years due to Tommy John surgery, other elbow problems, a middle finger sprain, and shoulder tightness. He threw a couple of February showcases that have failed to lead to a signing but has another scheduled for Friday. At best, any of them would be a project, not an immediate replacement.

The most workable option of that group is probably Britton, a 35-year-old lefty who pitched under Mets manager Buck Showalter with the Orioles from 2011 to ’18, making two All-Star teams and winning the 2016 Mariano Rivera Award. After undergoing September 2021 Tommy John surgery and bone chip removal — that in a season that also included a previous arthroscopic surgery on his elbow and a hamstring strain — he made just three appearances with the Yankees last year. Hopes for him to be part of the team’s postseason bullpen were dashed when he struggled with his control and was sidelined by a bout of shoulder fatigue. By coincidence, on Thursday he was scheduled to throw at least his third showcase session since January, and the Mets were expected to attend. Via MLB Trade Rumors, the Mets had previously focused on relievers with minor league options remaining, but with Díaz moving to the 60-day injured list and freeing up a spot on the 40-man roster, that’s less of an issue now.

Trading for a closer is another option, but at this point, the cost would be prohibitively high for a reliable one such as the Pirates’ David Bednar, a 2022 All-Star who won’t even be eligible for arbitration until after this season, or the Royals’ Scott Barlow, who has two years of club control remaining. On that note, Martino reported that last summer the Mets explored a possible trade for Alexis Díaz, Edwin’s 26-year-old brother and teammate on Puerto Rico’s WBC team (the sight of him sobbing over his brother’s injury on Wednesday night was heartbreaking). Last year as a rookie with the Reds, Díaz saved 10 games and notched a 1.84 ERA and 3.32 FIP in 63.2 innings, wit a 32.5% strikeout rate but 12.9% walk rate. Batters hit just .127, slugged .190, and whiffed on 31.1% of swings against his four-seamer, which averaged 95.7 mph with high spin; against his slider, they hit .133 and slugged .253, with a 45% whiff rate.

Díaz, though, has a full five years of control left, and the Reds have no reason not to ask for the sun, moon, and stars given the leverage they would have in revisiting a trade. Reds GM Nick Krall would probably lick his chops and ask for some combination of prospects Francisco Álvarez, Brett Baty, and Ronny Mauricio.

It’s far more likely that the Mets will sort through their internal options during the first half of the season and then start working on prying a late-inning reliever from a noncontender in July. With at least some part of Díaz’s $17.25 million salary covered by insurance (as is the case for all WBC participants), the Mets could, for example, absorb what remains of Daniel Bard’s $9.5 million salary (plus the same for 2024) when the Rockies inevitably look to cut costs.

There’s no getting around the fact that this is an impactful injury. Going by our Depth Charts, with Díaz the Mets bullpen ranked fourth in the majors with 3.7 projected WAR, and the closer accounted for 1.8 of that, nearly half:

Mets Bullpen Projection Pre- and Post-Díaz Injury
Split Innings ERA FIP WAR WAR Rk
Pre-Injury 539 3.26 3.40 3.7 4th
Post-Injury 539 3.41 3.58 2.1 19th

Ouch. Overall, the team’s projected total WAR dropped them from 52.3 (fourth in the majors behind the Braves, Padres, and Yankees) to 50.7 (fifth, with the Blue Jays sneaking into fourth). New York’s Playoff Odds took a hit, too:

Mets Playoff Odds Pre- and Post-Díaz Injury
Split W L Win% Div Bye WC Playoffs WS
Pre-Injury 91.2 70.8 .563 30.9% 27.0% 51.4% 82.3% 8.4%
Post-Injury 90.3 71.7 .557 26.1% 22.4% 51.6% 77.7% 7.0%
Change -0.9 0.9 -.006 -4.8% -4.6% 0.2% -4.6% -1.4%

Double ouch. Even a six-point drop in winning percentage lowers the Mets’ odds of winning the NL East by nearly five percentage points, and likewise for making the playoffs, with their World Series odds knocked down a peg.

Every team, even championship ones, has to surmount injuries and other curveballs thrown its way. Losing Díaz stinks, and losing him in the manner that the Mets did even moreso (but I’m not listening to your death-to-the-WBC gripes). Even so, he’s not Francisco Lindor or Max Scherzer, and this $355 million roster can’t afford to fall apart over losing 60-some elite innings. The Mets must figure out how to win without Díaz while holding out hope that maybe — just maybe — they can stick around long enough for him to join them and fulfill that World Series dream.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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David Klein
1 year ago

Daniel Bard would make a ton of sense as the Rockies are going nowhere, and they could get a decent return, but the Rockies are stupid and think they’re gonna contend so they’ll keep him. I suspect the Mets will likely sign Britton though of the free agent relievers left I’d prefer Ken Giles if he’s healthy enough to pitch. I would guess the bullpen is this if no more injuries
Nogosek(not a fan of his but the Mets are)
Not the elite bullpen it would be with Diaz but could be a top ten bullpen.

David Klein
1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

Add in Dennis Santana as an option now.

1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

Yeah, no matter how horrible they are the Rockies are no guarantee to inevitably cut costs. Rockies don’t play that.

(which while good in itself, is ungood in terms of young talent they thus forego bringing in; which they don’t actually have all that much interest playing anyway when they do have it)

1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

Daniel Bard is such an enigma. His off and on experiences with the The Thing as it is known in baseball, and is called the yips in other sports, is well documented. What he has done in harnessing the monster is about as close to unbelievable as can be imagined and he should be applauded but, as a professional golfer who was first struck, briefly, by them in his early 20’s then have them disappear for 15 years, only to strike again under some of the highest pressure I had ever faced, I can say, and others will agree, with certainty, that while they have periods of remission, they never disappear but are always lingering somewhere in the mind. It is my guess that he is very relaxed in the environment he is in now. Colorado isn’t New York or Boston and there is not the overwhelming pressure from all directions that there would be with the Mets and that would begin on day one. I wish him continued success, he has earned it, but I fear he would be risking a return if he was put in a high stress situation as the Mets closer.

1 year ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

OMG!!!!! Did we just see Daniel Bard crack again. His inning was a horror show right out of the Rick Ankiel handbook. 2 BB’s ,a HBP and 2 wild pitches. It is clear that the pressure appears to rival post-season intensity and that is a dangerous situation for the psyche of a man with his history. It was terrifying to watch, especially for someone who knows exactly what he is going through.

Last edited 1 year ago by bosoxforlife
Dag Gummit
1 year ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

It’s called “the yips” in baseball and I admit I’ve never heard of it as “the thing”.

Not to say there aren’t people who do call it “the thing”. Just that it’s always been called “the yips” every time I hear it come up (eg: in regards to Ankiel, Chuck Knoblauch, et al).

1 year ago
Reply to  Dag Gummit

The Yips is, indeed, commonly used in baseball but The Thing is a term which I guess is unique to baseball and I first heard it when Steve Blass, a Pirate star pitcher, contracted the disease in the early 70’s.