Fourteen games into the 2019 season, the Mets have looked like a team that can very much stick around and contend for the National League East title. And that is why they cannot give Jason Vargas another start—not next week, next month, or any time this year.
Through three appearances this year, Vargas has been tattooed, and he’s frankly a bit lucky to have only a 14.21 ERA. In his first start of the year in Miami, he gave up a ton of hard contact but was able to get out of the game with just two runs allowed in five innings of work. Since his turn in the rotation was skipped, his next appearance came in relief against the Twins, and he did not fool anyone. The Mets were down 10-4 to start the top of the ninth that night, but Vargas promptly gave up a double, two singles, and a home run, allowing four runs before he recorded an out. He did manage to finish that inning, not that it made it any better.
Last night in Atlanta, though, Vargas gave up four runs again, this time in one-third of an inning. Gary and Ron openly wondered about how the Mets could send him out for another start on the air after he gave up two singles and issued three walks, one of which forced in a run and forced Mickey Callaway to get him out of the game and put a huge burden on the Mets’ bullpen.
You don’t need to look at Statcast to know that Vargas has been getting smoked, though if you did want to look it up, the numbers would surely be ugly. In total, he’s thrown six-and-one-third innings this year, he’s walked four batters and only struck out three, and five of the innings he pitched came against the lowly Marlins.
To make all of this worse, none of what Vargas has done this year is surprising. While the Mets hyped up how good Vargas was down the stretch in 2018, even those eight starts with a 2.62 ERA only brought him down to a 5.77 ERA on the season. Of the 152 pitchers who threw at least 90 innings last year, that ERA ranked 146th.
The Mets also spent a lot of time talking up depth over the winter, and they have it in some areas of the roster. Starting pitching is not one of them, but the team was content to leave Vargas as its fifth starter all winter, even as Dallas Keuchel—who Allison McCague called for the Mets to sign back in January—remained unsigned. There were other options to upgrade from Vargas on the free agent market, too, but Keuchel is still out there and still makes a ton of sense for the Mets.
On top of that, Mickey Callaway suggested that the Mets could at least consider taking Robert Gsellman or Seth Lugo out of the bullpen and putting them into Vargas’s spot in the rotation, something that sounded like it would be off limits before the season began. The Mets brought in bullpen help over the winter, but while the quality of the top-end pitchers they brought in was good, the quantity wasn’t quite sufficient. Even with Lugo and Gsellman in the ‘pen, the last two relief spots on the roster have been in flux. Tim Peterson made the Opening Day roster but was already sent back to Syracuse for Corey Oswalt, who struggled mightily against the Braves last night. And Luis Avilan has a 12.71 ERA and 8.44 FIP through his first six appearances.
It might be too early to hit the panic button with every struggling pitcher on the roster, but the cascading effects of this version of Jason Vargas make the team’s decision to carry him as a starter to begin the year that much worse. There is no clear option to replace him in the minors right now.
Amazingly, the Mets could still vastly upgrade their rotation without giving up any players in their organization today. For a team to be in a position that the Mets are in—having made the roster decisions they made over the winter and sitting in first place while looking like a legitimately good team with an upgrade sitting right there in free agency in mid-April—is rare. They should pounce on that opportunity.
Even if they don’t, they have to find a capable major league starting pitcher somewhere. Giving up prospects, even marginal ones, would sting after they passed on the opportunity to merely sign a player to a well-paying contract. But it wouldn’t sting as much as watching Vargas make another start, the next of which—assuming he is skipped—would be scheduled to take place in another important division game, this time against the Phillies.