Mets manager Mickey Callaway said in September that he intends for Jason Vargas to be in the team's rotation this coming season, a comment that is still being criticized by most Mets fans.
"I think we're the best team we can possibly be with Vargas being the guy he was last year in our rotation," Callaway said. "I think we all feel confident that Jason, when he gets going and gets on a good schedule, he's going to be competitive. That's one of the reasons we signed him."
Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen has made the same statement on multiple occasions this past winter, including earlier this week during an interview with SiriusXM's MLB Network Radio.
Vargas, who signed a two-year, $16 million deal one year ago, opened the year on the DL and had an ERA above 8.00 after the first half of the season ended. However, from July 27 through the end of the season (11 starts spanning 54.1 innings), Vargas had a 3.81 ERA while allowing 45 hits, striking out 52, and walking just 16.
His average fastball was 86.4 MPH, which was the second-worst in baseball in 2018. However, Vargas told me earlier this week that velocity has never been the key to his success and he pays very little attention to it during and between starts.
As a result, given his command down the stretch, he believes his late-season success will continue in 2019.
"I want to able to keep the ball down in the strike zone and I think for the most part that leads to more success for me," Vargas said by e-mail. "I also need to throw my off-speed pitches down, as well. When I can command the ball down in the strike zone, I can generally have some success."
During his final 31 innings in 2018, Vargas did what he detailed above, which is keep the ball down in the strike zone, as well as throw inside to right-handed batters and keep them off-balance by strategically mixing his change up and fastball. By doing this, he got more swings and misses and induced weak contact from hitters, all of which will will be supported by a stronger infield defense in 2019.
However, according to Vargas, as well as Callaway, the key to his success will be more about routine than velocity or how he is commanding and mixing his pitches.
Earlier last season, after returning from surgery and before going on the DL with a calf injury, he made 10 starts, three of which were on 12 days, three days and eight days rest, respectively.
After returning from his second and final DL stint of the season, he made 10 starts, nine of which were between four and six days rest. Finally, for the first time all season, he was in a routine, which he and Callaway both said played a major factor in his success down the stretch.
For Callaway, he hopes to get Vargas in a rhythm as soon as possible...
"I really think he just needs a regular spring training, which is uninterrupted, to get himself where he needs to be," Callaway told me. "With him, it comes down to execution of every pitch to have success. And, a full, uninterrupted spring training and a regular schedule allows him to do that to the best of his ability. "
Nevertheless, the Mets have reportedly shown interest in free agent LHP Gio Gonzalez, though sources have told SNY's Andy Martino they do not want to offer him more than a one-year deal.
If signed by Brodie Van Wagenen, Gonzalez would presumably replace Vargas, who would then -- I guess -- be moved to the bullpen, where he has not pitched in nine years.
Callaway told reporters last September that, while the team had discussed moving Vargas to the bullpen, everyone involved preferred to see him continue being a starting pitcher.
As a result, if Van Wagenen is going to sign a starting pitcher, it'll almost certainly be someone willing to accept a minor league deal, able to compete in spring training and remain as depth in the minor leagues.
The free-agent market for starting pitchers still includes Josh Tomlin, Francisco Liriano, Clay Buchholz, Edwin Jackson and Yovani Gallardo, all of whom could realistically end up needing to sign a minor-league deal before the start of spring training.
Van Wagenen could also cave and give a guaranteed deal to free agents Doug Fister or Brett Anderson, who could serve as depth in the rotation as well as provide an option for the bullpen.
In time, though, if Vargas struggles like he did during much of last season, the conversation about moving him to the bullpen will emerge again. However, I've heard multiple times (beginning last summer) that -- if Vargas is struggling again -- he's more likely to be traded or released than put in a relief role.
"We're used to warming up a specific way, working a specific way between starts," former MLB pitcher, now MLB Network analyst Ryan Dempster told me when I asked him about starting pitchers being moved to the bullpen late in their careers. "We're used to setting up for several batters, having to manipulate them over the course of multiple innings so we can go the distance. It's more difficult for the older guy to make that shift when our mind and body has been doing it one way for so long."
Vargas will begin this season at 36 years old. Dempster retired after his age-36 season. He, too, faced questions about whether he should move to the bullpen during his final season. However, in his opinion, having experienced much of what Vargas is experiencing right now, to ask a 36-year-old, veteran pitcher -- who has been preparing to pitch every five days the past nine years -- to move to the bullpen would simply be setting him up to fail.
"If I'm the manager, he's either a starting pitcher or he's not on the roster," Dempster concluded.
According to Baseball Reference, only two of the 10 pitchers comparable to Vargas pitched beyond their 36th birthday. The two that did -- Dennis Rasmussen and Wandy Rodriguez -- retired within the next year and never exceeded 100 innings.
The point is, the deck is stacked against Vargas, as Dempster explained. However, as he pointed out, despite fans and media obsessing over how loud the clock on a pitcher's career may be ticking, it doesn't matter to the pitcher, who is conditioned to focus only on the task in front of him.
"Pitching is all about executing, so age is mostly just white noise in the background," he explained. "For me, it actually created motivation."
According to Dempster, for Vargas to return to being successful over the course of a full season, he has to keep doing what he's always done and not give in to pressure from teammates and coaches to alter his routine and approach on the mound. It's not so much that these changes will be effective or ineffective, but any one change in mechanics, routine or grip -- no matter how small -- will increase the chance of injury. This is the case for most pitchers, but especially for guys in their mid-to-late 30s.
"One day they say you're in your 'prime,' then you're 'an aging veteran,' and then all of a sudden they just call you, 'old,'" he said. "This is why it's even more important for the 'old guy' to remain healthy. The smallest issue is an easy excuse to be skipped in the rotation or moved you to the bullpen."
According to Dempster, the key -- be it for Vargas or anyone else getting close to the end of his career -- is to be realistic and self-aware about what is happening at every step of the season.
"Baseball is and will always be a game of adjustments," Dempster explained. However, he continued, "When you only have so many innings and pitches left in your arm, when you only have so many years left in your career, you can't afford to change anything until you have to."
Vargas will be faced with constant questions this spring from reporters about his health, age, stamina and willingness to pitch in relief. If he struggles, the questions will get more loud and more frequent.
The fact is, Vargas had Tommy John surgery in 2015. He tossed just 12 innings the next season. He was sensational in April, 2017, but pitched worse than his career averages the remainder of that year. Last season, he began the year having surgery, struggled upon his return, went on the DL and then pitched well enough to give him and the team hope for 2019.
Vargas knows the numbers, he knows his age and -- though he chooses to ignore it -- he has to know the odds of him continuing his late-season success and sustaining it are stacked against him.
In addition to every fan and reporter, Van Wagenen, Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland will be watching, evaluating and paying close attention to how Vargas performs.
"When it comes to evaluating an older pitcher in spring training, the real goal is to keep them healthy and get innings," Callaway told me, noting the more a guy pitches the more information is provided to the organization. "We can look at the crispness of their pitches, the action, the location and the mechanics, but -- in the end -- getting them a full spring training to get ready is the key."
Nevertheless, while Vargas may be 36, and may be due $8 million, and though he may currently have the benefit of the doubt, he knows nothing is guaranteed.
"I always want to go out and prove myself," he told me, noting that every spring training should be treated the same. "I'm not looking for anyone to hand me a spot in the rotation. I want to earn it."
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!