NEW YORK -- As part of his preparation for the 2021 season, Mets’ reliever Edwin Díaz is seeking permission from the club to pitch in his native Puerto Rico this winter.
Noting that he views Spring Training as the “first month of the season,” Díaz says he likes to start facing hitters before he reports to camp. Given that he pitched only 25 2/3 innings for the Mets in 2020, he’s hoping to log a few innings in January with the Criollos de Caguas of the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.
“I think throwing four or five innings in the winter will help me fill the tank to be 100% ready when the season starts,” Díaz said in Spanish by phone from Puerto Rico.
It remains unclear how the pandemic might impact Spring Training and the start of the regular season, while the specter of arm injuries figures to be a concern across the league following a truncated 60-game campaign. Nonetheless, Díaz says he is preparing for a 162-game schedule and that he is following his usual offseason routine with the blessing of Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, who manager Luis Rojas acknowledged on Wednesday will remain with the club.
Acquired in a trade with the Mariners in December 2018, Díaz will be looking to build off a strong ’20 in which he made 26 appearances and posted a 1.75 ERA while striking out a whopping 45.5% (50 of 110) of the batters he faced and limiting them to just two home runs and a .191 average. Although Díaz blew four saves, his performance stood in sharp contrast with his first season in Queens in ’19, when he posted a 5.59 ERA in 66 appearances and finished with a league-worst 2.33 home runs per nine innings among relievers.
“The most important thing was the location of the pitches,” Díaz said of his improvement. “This year, I was able to locate my fastball better and locate my slider better.”
The Mets hope Díaz's 2020 showing is an indication that the 26-year-old right-hander is on his way to recapturing the form he showed in ’18, when he garnered the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award after leading the AL with 57 saves for Seattle.
Díaz's value to New York might not solely be as a closer, however. Rojas on Wednesday spoke highly of Díaz's offseason work, while also noting that he’s not committed to defined bullpen roles.
“I can say that Edwin Díaz … will be one of the candidates to close out games, to stop any bleeding early,” Rojas said in Spanish. “When I say 'early' for him, it’s like a seventh or eighth inning. That last third of the game, Edwin would be involved in helping us win, along with other people. That’s the plan.
“We want to continue using our pitchers in a way that they are versatile and can come in at different points during the game and help stop the opposing team’s offense.”
Díaz finished 19 of the 26 games in which he pitched in 2020, while 10 of his appearances came in save situations. (The team had 18 save opportunities all season.) Seth Lugo was tabbed for five of those save opportunities before being moved to the rotation in late August. The Mets have yet to decide if they will deploy Lugo as a reliever or a starter in ’21, a decision that would impact how Díaz is used, as would the potential addition of another high-profile bullpen piece following the acquisition of Trevor May earlier this month. And as Rojas pointed out, Jeurys Familia also has substantial experience closing.
Yet as far as Díaz is concerned, he's preparing with the mentality of competing in Spring Training for the closer job.
“My goal has always been to be the closer,” Díaz said. “Since I started my career in the Major Leagues, [the Mariners] quickly gave me the opportunity and I’ve had success. The foundation of that has been hard work. So that’s what I’m preparing for.”