Mets manager Mickey Callaway and GM Brodie Van Wagenen have been consistent this entire offseason stating Jason Vargas would be their fifth starter in 2019.
Against the first batter Vargas faced this spring, he let up a home run. However, he has not allowed a run since, lowering his Grapefruit League ERA 1.08 ERA during his three starts, which is exactly what Callaway had been hoping to see.
"I really think he just needs a regular spring training, which is uninterrupted, to get himself where he needs to be," Callaway told me in January. "The regular schedule allows him to do that to the best of his ability."
Earlier this week, Vargas, who is 36 years old, tossed four shutout innings against the Astros.
"He's executing every pitch," Callaway said earlier this week. "He's been facing some really good hitters, I'm really pleased with the way he's throwing the ball."
The Mets signed Vargas to a two-year, $16 million deal more than a year ago in a deal that contains an $8 million option for 2020 with a $2 million buyout. During his fourth Spring Training start last season, he broke a bone in his hand on comebacker that landed him on the DL through the first month of the season. He returned and had an ERA above 8.00 through the middle of August, during which he was skipped in the rotation, missed more time with a calf strain and repeatedly faced questions about being moved to the bullpen.
Then, during his season's final, uninterrupted eight starts spanning 45 innings, he re-established himself with a 2.62 ERA, while allowing just 33 hits, striking out 41, and walking only 10 batters.
He told me this past January that -- because of how he felt and given his command throughout September -- he believes his late season success will continue in to 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. "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."
Just as he did at the end of his season, Vargas said the key to his game 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.
"If he had a good first half and a bad second half, I wouldn't feel as good. It's not how you start," pitching coach Dave Eiland recently said, according to NorthJersey.com. However, "It's how you finish, and he finished strong."
The way it stands, the team's depth behind Vargas includes Corey Oswalt and Walker Lockett, who combined have made just 16 career starts, during which they have a 6.59 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP.
Oswalt, Lockett and Hector Santiago (who could make the Opening Day bullpen) are why a large swath of Mets fans -- myself included -- have pushed for the team to sign another starting pitcher, ideally either Dallas Keuchel or Gio Gonzalez, both of whom remain available on the free-agent market.
Van Wagenen has been in contact with the representatives for Gonzalez, but sources have told SNY's Andy Martino the Mets do not want to offer more than a one-year deal. Less exciting, I had been hearing all winter and during my time in St. Lucie late last month that Van Wagenen is very open to adding another arm, but the veteran starting pitcher will need to accept a minor-league deal, have experience pitching in the bullpen and be OK beginning his season at Triple-A.
Obviously, that doesn't describe Gonzalez or Kuechel, both of whom have been seeking a long-term deal despite Opening Day being just 15 days away. On the other hand, free agent arms still available that do fit Van Wagenen's mold only include Edwin Jackson... that's it.
Local reports indicate the A's are interested in the 35-year-old Jackson, who went 6-3 with a 3.33 ERA in 17 starts for Oakland last season.
Josh Tomlin, Yovani Gallardo, Francisco Liriano and Ervin Santana were all available during most of February, but eventually signed minor league deals with other teams.
In terms of other in-house depth, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman have both shined at times when used in the rotation. However, the entire organization has been consistent stating the two pitchers will work exclusively in the bullpen this season, though I can't imagine Callaway and pitching coach Eiland not turning to them if needing a spot starter.
"I always want to go out and prove myself," Vargas told me last month, 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."
In either case, he is clearly destined to be the fifth starter when the season begins on March 28.
"To have that vote of confidence and have them stick behind me and voice that in the media (this entire past off season), it gives you tons of good thoughts to lean on," Vargas recently explained, according to MLB.com. "I try not to put a ton of stock into (Spring Training) results, but the results are good. You can't deny that."
It all sounds well and good. However, according to Baseball Reference, of the 10 pitchers comparable to Vargas at this stage of their career, only two -- Dennis Rasmussen and Wandy Rodriguez -- pitched beyond their 36th birthday and -- in both cases -- they retired within the next year and never exceeded an additional 100 innings.
The point is, the deck is stacked against Vargas, at least in terms of previous 36-year-old pitchers.
"We've got some pretty big goals in mind (for 2019)," Vargas said after his start this past Tuesday "We have a good opportunity to put ourselves in a good position to start off the year."
Vargas clearly believes he's deserving of helping the team attain their goals between now and the final pitch of the season. And so far, despite some fans feeling otherwise, the entire organization around him seems to agree.
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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!