It was over three years ago, July 21, 2015 to be exact, when it appeared that Jason Vargas’ days as a starting pitcher may be over. Vargas suffered a torn UCL in his throwing arm in a start against the Pirates that day and missed the rest of the 2015 season, a season in which his Kansas City Royals defeated the Mets to win the World Series. He’d go on to miss almost all of the 2016 season as well and with his contract set to expire at the conclusion of 2017, Vargas had to prove he was worthy of another contract.
Theories have floated around for years about the increased performance of contract-year players and Vargas did nothing to dispel them in the first half of 2017. Vargas was brilliant in his first 17 starts, striking out 78 in 106.1 innings with a 2.62 ERA en route to a surprise All-Star appearance. It was the best half-season of his career, coming off Tommy John surgery no less, and Vargas looked primed to cash in during free agency.
The second half of the season saw Vargas come crashing back down to earth though; he walked eight more batters in 30 fewer innings and had a 6.28 ERA in 73.1 innings. He ultimately finished with a respectable 4.16 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 179.7 innings, which seemingly assured him a spot in some organizations rotation in 2018. Vargas entered a rough free agent market that saw high tier free agents receive contracts considerably below what the market value of years prior. He was one of the lucky ones though, as he seemingly found the winning Powerball numbers and signed a two-year, $16 million contract with the Mets.
As far as free-agent signings go, Vargas’ pact with the Mets was pretty boring. He projected as rotation insurance if Matt Harvey was terrible again (spoiler alert: he was) or if a starter got hurt. Vargas as your No. 5 starter isn’t such a bad thing, but the Mets could’ve made a bigger splash by signing Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb instead. Of course, all three of those guys had draft pick compensation attached to them, which severely impacted their market and made Vargas all the more attractive.
Although Lynn and Cobb are off to brutal starts with the Twins and Orioles respectively, Vargas has somehow been even worse. He’s only made two starts due to a broken hand suffered in spring training, but Vargas has been downright awful. In 8.1 innings thus far, he’s allowed 15 earned runs on 20 hits and five walks. He’s also already given up five home runs and owns a 10.33 DRA. There’s really no positive way to spin this: Jason Vargas has been one of the worst starting pitchers in the league so far.
The question everyone wants answered is this: Is Jason Vargas done? The correct answer is that it’s only been two starts and we can’t draw any meaningful conclusions yet. The answer you’re looking for is yes, Jason Vargas isn’t a good starting pitcher anymore. We’re only two games into Vargas’ second stint with the Metropolitans, but this partnership already looks like it’s gone sour. Vargas sits in the high 80s and leaves so many hittable pitches in the zone it’s almost hard to believe; even the Mets could tee off on Vargas if he was the opposing pitcher every fifth day. Instead, they really have no choice but to trot him out and hope all the hard-hit balls go directly at guys. The Mets have some viable rotation depth at Triple-A Las Vegas, but where does that leave Vargas, who’s signed for two-years? The only other option would be to have Vargas assume the Paul Sewald long man role in the bullpen, which, sure, they could try him as a reliever, but if he’s not good as a starter, what makes you think he’ll be any more valuable out of the pen?
The Mets have a $16 million problem on their hands with no clear solution. Vargas deserves a couple more starts to show why he should keep his rotation spot, but the early returns aren’t promising and he hasn’t shown any reason for us to be optimistic in the future. Signing Vargas was a head-scratching move when it was made and the optics don’t look any better with Arrieta performing admirably for the rival Phillies. Of course, Vargas could play a pivotal role in the Mets success this season. If he can eat up innings with a mid-4 ERA, that’s useful for a team that’s had to heavily rely on their bullpen early on. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for a guy who seemingly excels at being average. Quite honestly, that’s really all the Mets need from him at this point. It’s clear to the Mets that the 35-year-old isn’t going to be a huge asset for the rotation, but there’s value in dependability and consistency. The Mets don’t need Jason Vargas to be one of The Five Aces. They just need him to be average every fifth day. Unfortunately, that may be a stretch at this point, even for a team like the Mets.
Photo credit: Noah K. Murray – USA Today Sports