It’s long been my opinion that MLB in general and the Mets in particular spend too much time worrying about which hand a pitcher throws with and not enough time worrying if the pitcher is, you know, any good. It’s how the Mets have wound up giving innings to Scott Schoeneweis and Robert Carson and Scott Rice and Josh Smoker. That quartet while in a Mets uniform combined for a 4.71 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP in 285 IP.
Despite that awful level of production, many fans are very concerned that as of right now the Mets do not have a second lefty in the bullpen behind Jerry Blevins. How on earth can the Mets contend with the Nationals without a lefty reliever to put up a 4.71 ERA?
Snark aside, it does seem a bit curious that with all of the bellyaching that the club has done in the recent past about the need to have multiple lefty relievers to be effective that there hasn’t been more of a clamor to bump a lefty from the rotation to fill that void. Steven Matz and Jason Vargas are both in the running for a starting slot. Yet we’ve heard about Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo and Zack Wheeler moving to the pen – why not either Matz or Vargas?
Perhaps this is a hint about the priorities of the new pitching braintrust.
But let’s disregard completely which hand a guy throws with and start with the assumption that the five best pitchers go in the rotation and the rest head to the bullpen. With this as the only guiding principle, why are Matz and Vargas seemingly gifted spots in the rotation?
Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard are the only ones who should have spots reserved in the rotation. Both have been terrific when healthy and Syndergaard has looked electric here in Spring Training after missing most of 2017. But after that, the other three spots should be an open competition, judged both by what the player has done recently in the majors along with how they’re throwing here in Grapefruit League action.
Gsellman had a disappointing season last year but has had good results so far in St. Lucie. There’s been talk about his sinker being better than it was in 2017.
Matt Harvey has been unimpressive the past two years in the majors and got beat up by the Yankees in his last Spring Training start.
Lugo battled injuries a year ago but seems healthy now. He’s having a strong Spring but two of his three appearances have been out of the pen, albeit with multi-inning outings.
Matz can’t stay healthy and last year was ugly. His Grapefruit League started the same way but his last outing was strong, with four scoreless innings.
Vargas rebounded from two injury-plagued seasons to post 18 wins last year. He was outstanding in the first half of the season and terrible in the second half. He has a 5.79 ERA and a 1.71 WHIP in his first two games this Spring.
Zack Wheeler hasn’t been healthy recently and after getting off to a good start last year, he fell apart before landing back on the DL. But he’s been the best of the bunch battling for a spot so far in Florida, with a 1.80 ERA with 0 (!!) BB and 8 Ks in 5 IP.
I wouldn’t want to have to make the decision on who gets a rotation spot today. But if forced at gunpoint to choose, my picks would be Harvey, Matz and Wheeler for the rotation, Lugo and Vargas for the bullpen and Las Vegas for Gsellman so he could be used as a starter. But somebody else could make completely different choices and it would be hard to put up much of an argument.
Vargas has two things going for him. The first is that he makes more money than anyone else in the competition and all other things being equal – that alone would give him the inside track to a starting gig. And secondly, new pitching coach Dave Eiland worked in the same capacity for Vargas last year in Kansas City. He’s seen up close and personal Vargas’ great success the first three months of the 2017 season and undoubtedly played a big role in getting him prepared to pitch after Vargas appeared in just 12 games combined the previous two seasons.
You could argue either way if Eiland’s previous experience with Vargas should be a key consideration. But in the final analysis, it doesn’t matter whether or not it should because it’s a near guarantee that it will.
At the end of the day, Vargas finished the 2017 season with a 4.16 ERA and a 1.330 WHIP or just about his career average marks in both categories. He bounced back from injury to be essentially the same guy he always was. For the 2017 AL he was a league-average pitcher, likely a touch better thanks to his ERA.
The question is if they prove healthy, are Harvey, Matz and Wheeler better than league average pitchers? They don’t have the greatest track record here recently of being healthy and assuming that they are now, or that they will be for the majority of 2018, is no doubt a big risk. But for sake of argument, let’s grant that they’re healthy now. Would you rather give the ball every fifth day to a healthy Vargas or a healthy Wheeler?
Wheeler’s walks and high pitch counts make him a troublesome proposition and no doubt many would prefer the known averageness of Vargas to the erratic production of Wheeler. But what’s going to propel the Mets to the playoffs? Do they need an average starter like the 1975 Mets who had three frontline pitchers who combined to go 52-34 but fell short of the playoffs because their other starters had a 4.78 ERA and went 16-27? Or do they need someone who has a shot to be more than that? If the latter, do you want to wager on 35-year-old Vargas repeating his first three months of 2017 over an entire season or on Wheeler making a leap forward in his age 28 season?
My opinion is that upside is more important to the 2018 Mets. If they only needed one starter to fill out the rotation, then a better case could be made for averageness. But they need three. Plus, if you’re worried about Wheeler being able to throw enough strikes – is that the profile of a guy who would thrive in the bullpen? For what it’s worth, Vargas has a lifetime 2.7 BB/9.
Maybe I’d feel better if Vargas ripped off three starts here in the remainder of Spring Training like we saw Matz give last time out. Otherwise, let’s give the masses what they think they want by making Vargas the second lefty in the pen.