Last night was the latest bad start for New York Mets’ starting pitcher Jason Vargas. Vargas gave up four runs in five innings against the Atlanta Braves, putting the Mets in a hole their offense couldn’t dig out of, and fell to just 2-7 on the year. Despite giving up six hits and three walks in five innings, Vargas actually managed to lower his ERA from 8.36 to 8.23. Vargas, who has yet to retire a batter in the sixth inning this season, has looked a lot closer to his awful second half performance in 2017 (6-8, 6.38 ERA in 15 starts) than his All Star first half (12-3, 2.62 ERA in 17 starts).
The Mets were clearly hoping that Vargas’ second half stats were an aberration when they handed him a two year, $16 million dollar deal in February with a team option for 2020. That contract has backfired spectacularly, and in a lost year the Mets may be inclined to give Vargas the ball every fifth day in the hopes of salvaging him for next season. It’s clear that there are 16 million reasons why Vargas is still in the Mets’ rotation, but his performance is not one of them. The bad part is that keeping Vargas in the rotation now is costing the Mets an opportunity to evaluate a young player who could help them next year in Corey Oswalt.
Oswalt has come into his own as a potential major leaguer over the past two years, and he has done well in his limited opportunities this season. The Mets turned to Oswalt when Vargas landed on the disabled list for a second time in late June, and he went 1-1 with a 3.60 ERA over his final four starts before ceding his spot to Vargas. That has been markedly better than any four start stretch Vargas has turned in this season, and Oswalt did it against the Toronto Blue Jays, Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, and San Diego Padres. With the Mets 18 games under .500, they need to take these last two months as opportunities to look at guys like Oswalt to evaluate whether they can contribute to the team in 2019.
Oswalt could get a chance to start again this weekend if the Mets skip Steven Matz (which they should considering he has a pronator strain in his left elbow), but if he pitches well again he should remain with the major league team. The Mets may opt not to do that since they have a ton of money invested in Vargas, but that would not be the proper use of their time this year. The schedule provides the Mets with the perfect opportunity to use a six man rotation for a bit. The Mets are scheduled to play 21 games in 20 days without an off day beginning on August 10th, including a double header in Philadelphia on August 16th. Oswalt could help with that, and extra rest could only benefit guys like Matz.
Performance dictates that Vargas shouldn’t be in the Mets’ rotation at all, but given where they are in the standings and their attitude towards veterans this year it appears to be a lock that Vargas will pitch every fifth or sixth day for the rest of the year. Someone has to start those games, so the Mets technically have nothing to lose by letting Vargas try and work out those problems at the big league level. If those starts come at the expense of guys like Oswalt or Seth Lugo, who could be factors in the rotation next season if the Mets decide to deal from their starting pitching over the winter, that will be problematic.