Unexpected Odd Couple: Brodie Van Wagenen Needs Jason Vargas?
In our current climate, news articles can be downright shocking. I peruse newspapers and magazines these days with numb eyes as I gaze across disappointment after confusion after disappointment. Fortunately, mixed in with the grabbag of misery is often a good laugh, and on June 6th, a New York Times recap outlined how Jason Vargas “[pitched] like an ace for Mets, shutting out the Giants.” I had to adjust my imaginary spectacles. Jason Vargas?
Yes, It Was Actually Jason Vargas
Yes, Vargas spun a five-hit complete game shutout, but the pitching like an ace moniker may have been more of a slight on the overall state of affairs for Met pitching than crediting Vargas himself. For all of Sandy Alderson’s meticulous sculpting of the New York pitching staff and Brodie Van Wagenen’s refining, 36-year-old soft-tossing Vargas is the only pitcher (lefty, righty, starter, reliever, Avenger, typeface, what have you) who is exceeding, let alone meeting, expectations.
None of this is meant to damage Vargas’s name and reputation; after all, he was somehow the number two starter on a World Series Kansas City team back in the day. Those Royals teams lived in some alternate universe where contact, speed, defense, and bullpenning won you games and it was acceptable to literally not have anything else—how else do Vargas and a 35-year-old Jeremy Guthrie start meaningful games. That team won it all the following season; this Mets team will not be winning the World Series (538 has their playoff odds down to 7%).
Now, it isn’t Vargas’s fault that the Mets are nine games under .500 halfway through the season. It isn’t Vargas’s fault that the starting rotation is titanically underperforming. It’s not Vargas’s fault that the bullpen, despite costing a fortune in dollars and prospects, is a complete dumpster fire (right on queue, last Thursday Phillies hung a five-spot on closer Edwin Diaz). It’s not Vargas’s fault that manager Mickey Callaway got into a dust-up with reporters (well, actually it most certainly is), and it certainly isn’t his fault if the reported discord between Van Wagenen and Callaway over who makes pitching decisions is true; after all, Vargas has pitched to a 3.66 ERA (well, a 5.07 xFIP and a .261 BABIP mean that’s not going to last very long, but let’s give old Vargy his moment in the sun).
But whose fault is it? Callaway is certainly a candidate, and his handling of the bullpen has been suspect at best. In that ill-fated Thursday affair against the Phillies, he left Diaz to rot, the right-hander’s third blow-up outing over a nine-appearance span (unlike also-maligned Phillies manager Gabe Kapler who pulled closer Hector Neris after four hits in favor of JD Hammer in the top of the inning, who went on to retire the side. He really laid the hammer down if you know… I’ll stop).
There have also been many individuals on the pitching side who have underperformed. Here’s the starting rotation (ranked in order of least to most disappointing).
|ERA||ERA+ (avg=100)||FIP||BR WAR|
For all of their talent, this is extremely underwhelming (sloppy defense, as evidenced by the FIPs, haven’t helped… only Vargas and Matz). The 2011 Phillies had a super-rotation, and it was fifth starter Vance Worley with an ERA of 3.01 in 21 starts who rounded out the staff, though I hope no one would conflate these two rotations.
The bullpen (Mr. Met cover your eyes) probably sucks even more. This clearly was not the plan after spending $30 million on a failed family reunion with Jeurys Familia and bailing the Mariners out of the Robinson Cano contract while dumping multiple top-100 prospects for Diaz. Underperforming is one thing—underperforming when you’ve gone nearly all-in is another. The 2019 Royals pitching staff is underperforming; for the sake of tanking, that actually might be a good thing. For the Royals former World Series foe, gee golly it is not. Playoff expectations, my friends, is the problem here.
That 2015 Met playoff run, however immediately satisfying for fans and ownership it may have been, has poisoned the franchise to an extreme sense of narrow-mindedness ever since (think: signing Jason Vargas in the first place!). Alderson may have set the precedent (remember Yoenis Cespedes—or even better—David Wright, who’s making $15 million this year), but Van Wagenen was entrusted to push forward with the agenda, and nearly every move they’ve made has prioritized the present over the long-term health and sustainability of the franchise.
The Diaz trade is going to leave the Mets hamstrung one day with the back-end of the Cano contract, and staring at $ 24million a year could turn into a Jacoby Ellsbury/Alex Rodriguez situation that their cross-town rivals have grown accustomed to (by the way, the two aforementioned prospects sent to the Mariners were Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn, who currently sit at #24 and #67 on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects, respectively). The Familia-reunion hasn’t fared well either, and considering the volatility of relievers these days, spending this much capital is only a necessary move for teams who play significant postseason baseball. Giving Jed Lowrie $20 million in the offseason instead of testing JD Davis and Jeff McNeil (Lowrie got hurt and they had to play the kids anyway LOL) was imprudent. While calling up Pete Alonso before the Super 2 deadline has undeniably paid off, the Mets probably cost themselves a year of budget Alonso somewhere on the back-end. To what? Win three more games in a non-winning season? As Shakespeare would say, L-O-L.
Van Wagenen’s evaluation of his own roster is what has doomed the future of this team. He’s essentially gone almost all-in for this year without much of a parachute to catch the landing. For all of his aggressiveness to pay off, he needs to win. And to win, he needs his fifth starter to keep producing. He needs the wry-old southpaw wizard known as Vargas.
The only problem is, Vargas seems to be backing his manager in Callaway versus Van Wagenen (available exclusively on pay-per-view). After the beleaguered manager got into a verbal skirmish with Newsday writer Tim Heaney, Callaway asked the Mets PR director to remove the writer from the clubhouse. Despite inhabiting a clubhouse with perhaps the potentially even more volatile presence of Carlos Gomez (along with with a “Flex” and “Pound” aka relievers Chris Flexen and Brooks Pounders, of course!), it would be old man Vargas who would defend his manager. Per The Ringer, “pitcher Jason Vargas then engaged in a staredown with Healey, after which he took several steps toward the reporter, telling him, ‘I’ll knock you the f*** out, bro.’” Well then.
If I were Callaway, I would use the recent reports that the Mets front office has potentially been dictating pitching changes as a perfect scapegoat; with this report, Van Wagenen & Co. are literally volunteering to take the blame for the horrific bullpen management. As ESPN’s Dave Shoenfeld pointed out, when Callaway was a pitching coach with Cleveland, he helped develop the vaunted Indians pitching staff while squeezing as much effectiveness out of relievers Dan Otero, Cody Allen, and Andrew Miller as possible. Looking at that trio today, none of them is near the level they achieved under Callaway. If there’s one thing Micky is qualified at, undeniably it’s managing a pitching staff. Apparently, Jacob deGrom’s agent has other ideas.
After a four-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies where they had a two-run lead at some point in every game before dropping two of three at home to the Braves (and on Saturday, guess what, the bullpen blew another lead) the Mets have stepped into a toaster oven. After a two-game set with the red-hot Yankees mid-week (you might have to hide the kids if Wilmer Font comes out in middle relief), they may come out as sliced, radiated brown bread (or as the kids say it, toast). Translation: If the Yankees can put up 30 runs on the reigning-champion Red Sox in two games, I shudder to think what this means for the Mets staff.
Oh look, Jason Vargas is pitching on Wednesday.
How much longer can the Mets rely on Vargas, second on the pitching staff in WAR on a staff full of aces, to carry the load? Van Wagenen asked for this, but Vargas doesn’t seem to be the Felix Unger to clean up every mess. Wasn’t that supposed to be Edwin Diaz’s job?
(Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)