Padres Add to Rotation, Sign Seth Lugo to Two-Year Deal

Seth Lugo
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Padres continued has been a productive offseason on Monday, closing a deal with veteran right-hander Seth Lugo for two years at just over $15 million, with a player option after the 2023 season, according to The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya. After 12 years with the Mets, the 33-year-old leaves the only club he’s ever known for an opportunity to start in San Diego after spending the bulk of the last five seasons out of the bullpen. The Padres, meanwhile, add another versatile arm in a winter during which, in addition to signing Xander Bogaerts, they’ve already agreed to new contracts with a pair of 2022 postseason standouts in swingman Nick Martinez and setup man Robert Suarez, who earned himself a five-year, $46 million commitment after an excellent rookie campaign. Lugo, who comes at a similar AAV but a shorter commitment, has an opportunity to slot into the back end of a starting rotation that lost Sean Manaea and Mike Clevinger after underwhelming short stints with the club.

For the Padres, the addition of Lugo also represents a victory over the rival Dodgers, who were reported to have been in the mix for the right-hander right up until A.J. Preller sealed the deal. San Diego, well on its way to owing more in luxury tax payments in 2023, seems intent on making a run for the division title after ousting the 111-win Dodgers from the postseason last year. Per our depth charts, Lugo’s projected 1.2 WAR improved the Padres’ starting staff — one led by Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, and Blake Snell — from a projected ranking of 14th in the majors to 12th, leapfrogging the Dodgers and the Verlander-less Astros, and drawing them just about even with the Giants.

NL West 2023 Projected Starting Pitching WAR
Giants 914 8.2 2.6 1 .304 72.0% 3.86 3.71 12.6
Padres 937 8.9 3 1.2 .288 73.1% 3.94 4.00 12.6
Dodgers 923 8.7 2.6 1.3 .297 72.3% 4.14 4.01 12.2
Diamondbacks 942 7.8 2.8 1.2 .298 70.9% 4.36 4.22 8.9
Rockies 918 6.8 3 1.4 .323 68.1% 5.33 4.77 6.8
SOURCE: FanGraphs Depth Charts

Heading into 2022, Lugo’s no. 1 goal was likely simply to stay healthy. Over his tenure with the Mets, he dealt with a handful of injuries to his throwing arm, including pitching for a few seasons with a partial tear in his UCL (which never required surgery) and being sidelined with bone spurs in his elbow in spring training in 2021 (which did). Only this spring did he feel like he had fully returned to health; “My elbow hasn’t felt this good in a couple years now,” he told reporters in March. Armed with a new level of comfort, Lugo went on to make a career-high 62 appearances, leaving the active roster only for a happy reason: the birth of his second son. At the age of 32 and despite coming off an elbow injury, his fastball velocity was a tick up from 2021 and just about as hard as it ever has been, averaging 94.4 mph.

Aside from the versatility a healthy Lugo could provide San Diego’s staff, there’s a lot he does well, thanks in large part to a curveball that tracks among the best in the league. Since 2018, his curve has ranked 16th out of 156 pitchers with 1.16 runs above average per 100 pitches (min. 300 IP). The pitch has never ranked lower than the 99th percentile in spin rate and consistently features over 60 inches of drop, between 15–20% more than league average. Here he is striking out Christian Yelich on a 3,473 RPM curve, Statcast’s fastest-spinning curveball to induce a whiff across the whole league last year:

The curve is the crown jewel of a five-pitch mix Lugo has used even in relief (though his changeup has been relegated to rare deployment against left-handed hitting). But 2022 was the first year the hook became his most featured pitch, rising from 28.5% usage in ’21 to 34.0% (compared to his four-seamer’s 28.9%). In its elevated role, the pitch garnered a 30.8% whiff rate and held opposing hitters to a .159 average, .261 slugging, and .199 wOBA. It helped him limit hard-hit contact overall to just 32.4% of batted balls (22.9% on curveballs), good for the 86th percentile league-wide. For what it’s worth, if it’s the Dodgers that San Diego has in its crosshairs, curveballs were the most effective pitch against their league-best lineup last year, though some of those who struggled against the pitch have moved on from L.A., including Cody Bellinger, Joey Gallo, and Hanser Alberto.

Seth Lugo’s Curveball Profile, 2022
Usage 34.0%
Avg. EV 86.7 mph
Vertical Break 60.8 in
HardHit% 22.9%
Whiff% 30.8%
AVG .159
SLG .261
wOBA .199
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Lugo’s year-over-year improvements in limiting hard contact were significant; his 32.4% StatCast hard-hit percentage was a decrease of nearly six percentage points from 2021. His ground ball rate increased from 41.5% to 45.6%, his fly ball rate from 33.9% to 37.8%, and his line drive rate dropped steeply from 24.6% to a career-low 16.7%, good for 34th out of 273 pitchers with 60+ innings. Following league trends, Lugo allowed a lot more contact, but for the most part, it was the type that the Mets’ defense could turn into easy outs. This is a valuable quality in today’s game; four of the top six pitchers in hard-hit percentage were Cy Young finalists, and talented soft-contact pitchers such as Tyler Anderson, Chris Bassitt, Jameson Taillon, and Zach Eflin have cashed in this offseason, in some cases well above their projections.

Soft-Contact Pitchers Signed, 2022-23 Offseason
Player Signing Team Years Total Value Proj. Years Proj. Total Value 2022 HardHit% Percentile
Tyler Anderson LAA 3 $39M 2 $30M 98
Zach Eflin TBR 3 $40M 3 $28.5M 94
Chris Bassitt TOR 3 $63M 3 $60M 87
Jameson Taillon CHC 4 $68M 4 $56M 64
Median projections from Jon Becker’s 2022-23 MLB Matrices

Lugo has shown the ability to get outs from the middle of the bullpen; the challenge in his new home will be to prove that he can succeed in the starting role that he sought in free agency. He’s had limited success in his rotation stints to this point, the last of which came in 2020, when implosions against Philadelphia and Washington ballooned his ERA to 6.15 and FIP to 5.05, though a 3.13 xFIP is quite forgiving. Lugo as a starter is no sure thing, and the Padres could stand to add more depth to support him, Darvish, Musgrove, Snell, and Martinez. Former Red Sox first-rounder Jay Groome, who came over in last year’s Eric Hosmer deal, may be next in line at Triple-A El Paso. Also in the wings: former All-Star Julio Teheran, who at the age of 31 is working on a comeback from indy ball and joined San Diego on a minor league deal. Existing 40-man options Adrian Morejon and Ryan Weathers have spot-started in the past.

If nothing else, Lugo has the pitch mix to stick in the rotation, led by the elite curve. He’s been capable of retiring both right-handed hitters and left-handed hitters over his career, and his recent trend towards soft contact could serve him well deep into games. But ultimately, his chance for success as a starter will have to be played out on the field. What matters now is that the Padres found Bob Melvin a veteran with experience getting outs in every inning of the game.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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1 year ago

I like Lugo but even more important is the Dodgers are slipping up. I suspect they wanted Lugo and Swanson pretty bad, were in on both

1 year ago
Reply to  SenorGato

The Dodgers may have been just bidding up the price for Lugo. The Padres probably should have gone harder for Senga.