Jason Vargas and a second lefty in the pen

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.

30 comments for “Jason Vargas and a second lefty in the pen

  1. b
    March 11, 2018 at 11:24 am

    fatally flawed thought

    • Rae
      March 12, 2018 at 9:51 am

      The Mets have a really good lefty reliever named Kyle Regnault who had an ERA under 3.00 while pitching in Vegas in 2017. Yet the dumb assed Mets have not pitched this guy very much while he has been at Spring Training 2018? Regnault should have been used in as many relief spots to determine whether he is the answer to their lefty reliever question mark. Callaway must have been asleep at the wheel on this one?

  2. Madman
    March 11, 2018 at 12:15 pm

    Wouldn’t Arietta be a great fit? DeGrom,Syndergard, Arietta,a great Big Three. Suddenly the Nats aren’t a sure thing and the Mets are solid playoff contenders.

  3. March 11, 2018 at 12:21 pm

    Wheeler’s high pitch counts when he starts kill any hope for seeing him go 7+ innings. So why not have him as a long man out of the pen to pitch once around the line up? The Mets need to have their starters go 6 innings or more or the bull pen is going to burn out again. The only saving grace is that TC is gone and we have 2 pitching coaches who should understand when to get the pen up. I think Vargas slots in at 3 and as you say Brian 4 and 5 we’ll just have to wait and see how things pan out.

  4. Chris F
    March 11, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    You said yourself why Vargas will be a starter. And thats exactly what will happen when the Mets go north. Baseball is not a meritocracy. He has a comparatively big contract, no doubt Eiland was central in nursing that signing along. And hes good for 180 innings. Thats not pen material at this moment when we need to cover >1000 IP from starters.

  5. John Fox
    March 11, 2018 at 1:11 pm

    Vargas hasn’t exactly lit it up in ST, I agree with Brian I’d rather see him in the pen as the long man and give Matz the shot at starting.

  6. Name
    March 11, 2018 at 2:53 pm

    You seem to be in denial with Vargas. He’s going to be a starter to start the season no matter what. He wouldn’t have signed that contract if Alderson told him they were maybe thinking about putting him in the bullpen. The Mets would probably be blacklisted if they tried to pull this role switcharoo.

    If he struggles in the first half and there are options to replace him, that would be acceptable, but there was an unwritten agreement that he would get a chance to start.

    And i already noted it before, but it bears repeating.
    In the 7 seasons since 2009, his 1st half ERA (healthy or not) has been under 4.00 in 6 of the 7 seasons, and the one season it wasn’t it was 4.07.

    • March 11, 2018 at 4:14 pm

      Denial? No, that’s not it.

      All accounts are that he’s been given a starting slot. I’m not denying that. I’m saying I don’t think it should be written in stone that Vargas is a starter and that it should be a fair and open competition.

      • Chris F
        March 11, 2018 at 4:25 pm

        Like I said, baseball is *not* a meritocracy. He’s a starter, and that’s that.

        • March 11, 2018 at 5:37 pm

          I don’t get your insistence on repeating this, Chris.

          No one is denying that this is what’s happening. I’m merely stating my opinion that this path of a guaranteed slot is a mistake. I think there’s plenty of room to disagree with my opinion on its own merits – that it’s a mistake thinking that Harvey, Wheeler or Matz is up for a rotation slot. We’ve seen an awful lot of suck and injuries from that trio the past two years. But we’ve also seen two years of injuries, 3 months of greatness and 3 months of suck from Vargas the past three years.

          Forget what the Mets are doing. If you were put in charge of the team today, would you anoint Vargas a starter?

          • Chris F
            March 11, 2018 at 9:09 pm

            Yes. I bought a car, and plan to drive it as a car.

      • Name
        March 11, 2018 at 5:36 pm

        So then you’re in denial of his 1st/2nd half splits?

        He’s like the reverse of Granny who you could always count on to struggle mightily for the first month or two of the season and you never had a problem with that. The most irrational thing you could do is ignore a consistent long term pattern and follow the short term trend.

        • March 12, 2018 at 9:38 am

          I was unaware of the 1st/2nd half splits until you posted them the first time. I do not deny that is what his numbers say.

          But, that doesn’t mean I have any faith in their predictive ability. I know of no study that has ever indicated a predictive ability with 1st/2nd half splits. With the thousands upon thousands of MLB pitchers in history, odds were likely that a few of them would have a streak where they outperformed in one versus the other. If you want to say that Vargas is the exception that proves the rule, well, that’s your right. But I won’t be boarding that particular train.

          • Name
            March 12, 2018 at 11:11 am

            Effectively what it looks like you’re saying is that you think that the predictive ability of Spring Training stats is stronger than the predictive ability of what a guy’s regular season stats

            I think that’s so so so so so wrong but, that’s your right.

            • March 12, 2018 at 12:40 pm

              No, that’s not it.

              Let me state this as clear as I know how. My opinion is that the upsides of Harvey, Matz and Wheeler far exceeds the upside of Vargas. I’d like that trio to go to Spring Training with the chance to all win rotation spots. And they do that by showing health, velocity and command.

              • Chris F
                March 12, 2018 at 1:01 pm

                I guess what I dont understand is that when he signed, Im sure the deal was signing him as a starter. Period. As a result, there is no competition for his spot on the rotation by fiat.

                I think the other thing to keep in mind is that Vargas is quite likely to offer a lot of innings, none of which are likely from Harvey, Matz, and Wheeler. I would rather have signed Lance Lynn, but we bought a back end starting pitcher, and that’s exactly how he will be used.

                • March 12, 2018 at 1:14 pm

                  This is an opinion piece, not a prediction piece.

                  In my opinion, assuming all pitchers are healthy and at the top of their game as much as possible here in 2018, Jason Vargas is not one of the 5 best pitchers in camp.

                  For the purpose of this article, it makes no difference what the Mets plan to do. It makes no difference what promises they made to him. The only thing that matters is your opinion. If in your opinion, Jason Vargas is one of the 5 best pitchers, then he should start.

                  I think it’s very reasonable to disagree with my opinion in the parameters of the actual discussion. Matz can’t stay healthy, Wheeler can’t throw enough strikes, Harvey has lost too much stuff, these are all reasonable rebuttals and reasonable reasons for Vargas to be in your personal top 5.

                  But when you consistently go back to the point – which no one is disputing – that the Mets brought him in to be a starter, well, it’s just not relevant to this particular article.

                  • Chris F
                    March 12, 2018 at 5:07 pm

                    sorry, I guess I just misunderstood that in every way imaginable.

              • Name
                March 12, 2018 at 3:15 pm


                Just curious, if you had to expand the list would you rank Gsellman and Lugo higher than Vargas too?

                • March 12, 2018 at 4:12 pm

                  My preference is to give shots to people who came up through the system, so I’d probably lean towards Gsellman and Lugo. But I wouldn’t argue much with someone who felt different.

                  Jeff Sullivan wrote about Vargas after the signing.

                  “The normal numbers are telling enough. A 2.62 ERA before the break. After that, 6.38. It was suggested that Vargas fell victim to late-season fatigue, which makes sense, given the playing time he missed after surgery. Maybe he couldn’t build up his old stamina. He did still find a way to be better in September than in July.

                  This is more interesting than just first vs. second half, though. This is about April vs. every other month.

                  “Maybe Jason Vargas got tired. But, fundamentally, he was always the same pitcher. Fastball — changeup — curveball, heat mostly down in the mid-80s. Vargas was the same pitcher, throwing the same stuff in the same way. In July, Vargas was one of the very worst starters in the game. Yet, in April, he was one of the absolute best. It wasn’t just a mirage, based on something fluky, like home-run suppression. The only better FIP- marks in April belonged to Noah Syndergaard, Chris Sale, and James Paxton. Vargas was fourth. He was incredible.

                  “In so many ways, this is a boring acquisition. If everything actually goes right for the Mets, they’ll have so many good starters that Vargas will end up in the bullpen. You look at Jason Vargas and pretty much the last thing you consider is upside.”


                  The article has a chart that shows Vargas’ FIP by month in 2017 and where it registered compared to other pitchers. It also has a table showing the best K-BB% rates of his career. Well worth checking out.

  7. Remember1969
    March 11, 2018 at 7:41 pm

    My view on this is they brought him in on that contract to suck up a lot of innings as a starter. I think they don’t mess with that until he proves he cannot do that as effectively as the next best #5 guy. I think there is something to the look he gives them from the port side. I like breaking up the hard throwing right handers in a short series, kind of like I like alternating lefty and righty hitters through the lineup.

    So net, yup, anoint him as a starter, let him work on his stuff without messing with his head in Spring Training

    • TJ
      March 11, 2018 at 10:34 pm

      Agreed. At this stage of the game, I have no problem granting Vargas one of the five coveted starting positions. While he’s a long shot for the Cy Young award, he has a solid MLB track record and proven reliability. I agree that he would fit well between two hard throwers, and I also like that the majority of his innings have been in the AL.

      I think there needs to be a blend with the meritocracy, and the trio of DeGrom, Syndergaard, and Vargas have earned the spots regardless of game to game spring training performance.

  8. Pete from NJ
    March 11, 2018 at 8:36 pm

    So reading al this: Degrom , Syndergaard, Harvey, Vargas and it seems like Wheeler as the starters Lugo and then an awkward role for Matz in the bullpen. Gsellman either stretched out in LV or another spot in the bullpen.

    Gee that’s a lot of moving parts. We never had a group of starters change rolls putting then in new positions. If the theory works this is fine pitching staff.

    • TJ
      March 12, 2018 at 12:43 pm

      I believe that Alderson stated that Matz would not go to the pen, but to Vegas to start. I agree with this approach to start off the season, and applying the same plan to Gsellman. Lugo is interesting as he seems to better fit the long man role, so long as his elbow health is not a concern there.

      If this is how they start, I would then determine best roles based on performance. Meaning, I would consider starters tucked in AAA for bullpen roles if they were pitching well, there was no room in the MLB rotation, and the bullpen needed upgrades to better compete in 2018.

      Hopefully they have these problems…too many quality pitchers that are healthy and performing to potential.

  9. Madman
    March 11, 2018 at 10:16 pm

    If Vargas fades in the second half replace him with Wheeler,Lugo, or Gsellman, no problem. That’s the nice thing about depth.

  10. MattyMets
    March 11, 2018 at 11:00 pm

    there are still 18 days of ST. Still a safe bet that one of these guys gets a boo boo and winds up on the DL or needs extended ST.

  11. Mike Walczak
    March 11, 2018 at 11:29 pm

    It will play out. The rotation will change as the year goes by. What is good, that even if one of the last three starters sucks, or one gets hurt, they have a list of reasonable replacements. I guarantee you that this will happen. The old short leash.

    Vargas was signed to be an innings eater, just like our old friend Bartolo. The rotation will also change because several of the starters will be on an innings cap. So, what do we do when they hit the cap on September 1st? Dip into the starter pool.

    Analytics are great, but all that they do is show the past. Who knows how they will perform this year. Whoever thought that Bobby O would go 18-5 in 86 after hewas 9-11 the year before with Boston.

    As always, the season will be full of surprises. Let’s play ball.

  12. TexasGusCC
    March 12, 2018 at 2:07 am

    Vargas was signed to be a dependable innings eater that should give you around a 4.00 ERA and be your fifth starter. He checks all the boxes especially considering he came from the DH league where ERAs are usually a half-run to a full-run higher, depending on your division. The AL Central wasn’t too impressive overall, so I think about a half-run is a start, then throw in the Marlins and Braves, and I could see a 3.80 ERA overall with a 1.35 WHIP.

    So now we come to the problem at hand: which five are the best combination? I don’t say the five best because there is a common blip in three of them in that they are probably lacking stamina.
    – Harvey threw exactly 92.2 innings in 2016 and in 2017, and wanted to be shut down in September 2015 to avoid an innings buildup despite the fact that he had a great year and so his arm probably wasn’t as stressed as a normal 185 innings pitcher was, and he missed all of 2014 to boot.
    – Wheeler also threw 185 innings.. in 2014! None in ‘15, or ‘16, and threw 86 last season but needed to be shut down.
    – Matz threw 135 in 2016 but only 66 innings last year.

    So, who really can you count on for the whole year? None of them! So, you start the one throwing the worst in late March in the bullpen and let him gripe. Competition is good and these guys need to stop being handled with kid gloves. [Accountability… Callaway’s favorite word…]

    Very possibly in June the Mets may feel that they are ready for a six man rotation as Callaway has hinted that he pitched in Asia and loved the six man – but felt the many off days in the early part of the year would wreck routines. This will be easier on all the pitchers, including those that won’t reach 180 innings, but this way could reach about 160.

  13. TexasGusCC
    March 12, 2018 at 9:49 am

    I hadn’t seen Mike’s comment when I posted mine (was it in moderation or something?), but I like John Bernhardt’s better. He speaks of sharing the fifth spot, meaning, alternating between starting and piggy backing to keep Matz and Wheeler stretched out and prepared.


    • March 12, 2018 at 10:08 am

      Yes, Mike has the same problem that you and Metsense had earlier. I told him how to fix it but he said he was fine letting them go to moderation.

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