Jason Vargas's progressing recovery from hand surgery this spring had already raised the question of how the team will manage a crowded rotation, but Matt Harvey's struggles as a starter this season have further complicated matters. It seems inevitable that someone will find themselves pitching out of the bullpen by the end of the month, so who is the best fit?
Two weeks ago, the answer would assuredly have been Zack Wheeler. Since the early days of his major league career, many have seen a future reliever in him, perhaps even a closer. Despite strong tools, he's lacked the ability to go deep into games, and to put away batters consistently. He has also battled injuries throughout his career, including an exceptionally long recovery from Tommy John surgery, leading to conjecture that his arm may not be able to handle the work load of a full-time starter.
Even the Mets seemed to have their doubts about Wheeler's future in the rotation, as a shaky spring led to his starting the season in the minor leagues. But his two quality starts since his recall earlier this month have bought him some renewed confidence and certainly another shot to show he can hold up to the trials of a starting pitcher.
Harvey, on the other hand, has done the opposite. A strong showing in Spring Training has not carried through into the season. On the contrary, he looks very much like the pitcher of the last two years, who has spent several months on the disabled list and has been unable to perform at a major league level. There are some potentially promising peripheral statistics for him -- an uptick in his strikeout rate and his lowest walk rate since 2013. But the 6.00 ERA is simply not something any team can carry, especially one that has its sights set on a playoff appearance.
The difficulty with Harvey is that there are serious questions as to whether a bullpen role will serve him, or the team, any better. He has been very hittable, giving up well over a hit per inning, and has been particularly prone to the long ball. Those kinds of challenges don't play well in a short relief context as the manager is realistically limited to using him as a mop-up man, or else risk a major blow-up. Many troubled pitchers start strong in a game before fading, but that hasn't been the pattern for Harvey, who has a 1.102 OPS during his first 25 pitches of a game this season -- similar to his pattern last year.
The third option for the bullpen, though it's a longshot, would be Vargas himself. Harvey's struggles Thursday night were matched by Jerry Blevins, who gave up four runs in less than an inning of work. The sole lefty in the Mets bullpen, Blevins has 11 appearances in just 18 games this year and the workload seems to already be affecting him. But Vargas may not be suitable for that role, as he has no significant platoon splits for his career and has actually been better against right-handers for three straight years.
Given his veteran status and his contract, it's highly unlikely that the Mets would move Vargas to the bullpen any time soon, instead transferring some of Blevins's workload onto other relievers who have thrived against lefties, such as Paul Sewald and Robert Gsellman.
At this stage, unless Harvey really dazzles in his next start, likely his last before Vargas is ready, he will probably be the man to go. The Mets simply cannot afford to send him out there every five days in this condition. With five years of major league service time, he must approve any assignment to the minors and, like most players in his situation, he would almost certainly refuse.
The Mets don't have the depth right now to let him go for nothing, and there's still a glimmer of a chance that he may not yet be the next victim of the career-killing Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. So into the bullpen he'll likely go, reserved for low-leveraged situations, and we'll hope against hope that he can keep the ball in the yard.
Maggie Wiggin (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Archive Posts) has been a Mets fan since birth and a MetsBlog contributor since 2013. She loves throwing hard and hitting hard and hates the DH. When baseball is out of season, she fills her days with data analysis and evaluation and patiently waits for Spring