What Edwin Díaz's devastating knee injury means for the Mets’ 2023 ambitions

The reality of Edwin Díaz's shocking, freak knee injury is still sinking in. The best closer in baseball, whose 2022 season with the New York Mets ranked among the great relief seasons in MLB history, will likely not pitch in 2023 after suffering a torn patellar tendon while celebrating Puerto Rico’s win over the Dominican Republic on Wednesday in the World Baseball Classic.

It was a sickening comedown after Díaz closed out a thrilling, high-energy game that sent his team through to the WBC quarterfinals and bounced the favored D.R. team. The most immediate takeaway is simply disappointment for Díaz, for his clearly crushed Puerto Rico teammates and for Mets fans who will have to go without Díaz’s delirious, trademark entrance music for the first season of the five-year, $102 million deal he signed to stay in New York.

And now the Mets will have to trudge forward without a key piece of the team and clubhouse. With a massive payroll and star-studded roster, their target is undoubtedly still the World Series. But Díaz's injury raises several big questions before Opening Day has even arrived.

How much will Edwin Díaz's injury hurt the Mets?

You can answer this question with an eye toward granular 2023 projections or the sweeping narrative of the Mets’ quest to build a juggernaut under team owner Steve Cohen. The gist is the same either way: a whole lot.

Let’s start with the granular. A week ago, FanGraphs’ depth chart projections viewed the Mets bullpen as MLB’s third-best unit heading into the season, behind the Atlanta Braves and basically tied with the San Diego Padres. Díaz, unsurprisingly, carried a huge chunk of that expected value. He was projected to run a 2.36 ERA across about 60 innings, striking out more than 40% of the batters he faced. That’s a remarkable line for an inherently conservative projection system to spit out, but it was well earned. Since a rocky 2019 introduction to the Mets, Díaz has been sparkling, logging a 2.27 ERA, 70 saves and an MLB-best 42.7% strikeout rate across 150 1/3 innings.

Without him, the Mets bullpen now ranks 20th on FanGraphs’ depth charts, sandwiched between the Miami Marlins and Chicago Cubs. Now, it should be noted that there are other forces in play besides Díaz. The Mets’ bullpen depth options are also stretched thin by other injuries, most notably to Jose Quintana in the starting rotation.

Last year, even with Díaz's heroics, the Mets had MLB’s 11th-best park-adjusted bullpen ERA-. It’s plenty possible to reach the postseason with a subpar bullpen — the Phillies ranked 22nd last season — but it’s not anyone’s idea of a good, fun plan.

Zoomed out, the damage to the Mets’ grand ambitions is less quantifiable but perhaps more devastating. Cohen and GM Billy Eppler built a 101-win team last year and are upping the ante in 2023 with the biggest payroll in baseball history. On one hand, that shows a fairly obvious commitment to winning that presumably will hold for the four remaining years of Díaz's deal, when he can hopefully pitch as well or nearly as well as he did the past three seasons. On the other hand, realistically, the Mets were built to peak in 2023 and 2024.

Instead of two guaranteed cracks at a World Series run with Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Díaz soaking up crucial innings, the Mets are effectively down to one guaranteed year with all of them under contract. Scherzer will be a free agent after 2024. Verlander has an option for 2025. And both are already extreme outliers on the aging front. Cohen can (and probably will) go out and find stars to sign when they depart, retire or decline, but it is often just not possible to acquire players as good as Scherzer and Verlander.

The Mets had a clear window for 2023 and 2024 built around spectacular but aging starting pitchers, a locked down lineup and Díaz. The rotation was thought to be the biggest risk (maybe it still is), but Díaz’s injury immediately cuts the whole enterprise down to a less daunting size for other NL contenders.

How will the bullpen look without Díaz?

It has been less than 24 hours since Díaz's leg buckled in Miami, so manager Buck Showalter and the Mets have understandably not detailed their entire plan for dealing with the loss. But we can start to make some guesses.

Adam Ottavino and David Robertson — each 37 years old, by the way — are the best, most proven arms in the bullpen now. They were going to be the setup men, and now they figure to handle both the setup and closer roles between them. Both were spectacular in 2022, but Ottavino’s underlying numbers were a bit more reassuring. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll get the saves, though. Robertson has spent years as a primary closer, including across town for the Yankees. Whether because Ottavino has never shouldered that burden consistently or because Showalter would simply prefer to use him at the highest-leverage moment — as he occasionally did even with Díaz — the slider-slinging righty might be the relief ace without being the closer.

That said, the difference between a manageable dropoff and a bullpen disaster will probably be decided further down the depth chart. The biggest question revolves around how much the Mets will need young starter candidates David Peterson and Tylor Megill. Each has shown promise and could help stabilize the bullpen, but they might be even more necessary to the rotation, with Quintana already out for months and two aces pushing toward or past 40. Megill famously started on Opening Day in 2022 when Jacob deGrom couldn’t take the ball.

Beyond that, there are some new options to sort through, with that assessment suddenly more urgent. Eppler added left-hander Brooks Raley from the Tampa Bay Rays in the offseason, and his role figures to take on some more pressure. He leveled up in 2022 after leaning into his slider as a go-to pitch.

Other new faces include Elieser Hernandez and Jeff Brigham, both acquired via trade from the Marlins, and John Curtiss, a tall right-hander who also unlocked his effectiveness with the Rays. Drew Smith, a returning Mets arm who took steps forward the past two seasons but struggled to contain homers, will also be asked to take the ball in some more critical moments.

Could the Mets make moves to acquire more bullpen help?

If outside help is to be on the way, the first name on the radar is Zack Britton — Showalter’s former closer in Baltimore. He’s actually younger than Ottavino, Robertson and pretty much every other pitcher on the Mets you’ve heard of, but he has managed only 19 innings the past two seasons. Even so, he’s reportedly throwing for teams this week in search of a major-league job.

Otherwise, a splashy move for bullpen help seems unlikely before the summer.

In the meantime, the best thing the Mets can do, as unsatisfying as it sounds, is play well enough with the rest of their stars that Díaz's loss is felt less acutely. The 2022 Mets were 21-15 in one-run games, which was good but not out of line with their overall performance, the way some bullpen-centric winners have been.

The 2023 Mets will have more than enough talent to contend for the NL East — and the pennant — with mere mortals pitching the ninth. There’s just far less margin for error than there was a few days ago, and there are no more trumpets to drown out the doubts that always loiter around Queens.