During a conversation with Wayne Randazzo on Saturday, Mets manager Mickey Callaway announced that the team will not be moving to a six-man rotation, a decision they had been ruminating over for a little while. Instead, the team will be sending Corey Oswalt to the bullpen and keeping Jason Vargas in the starting rotation.
Of course, now that Vargas has had two decent starts in a row, between his six-inning, two run start against the Orioles on August 14 and a 5.1 inning, two run start against the Phillies on Sunday, the Mets will look even more justified in their decision. However, it is still a bad one.
There is only one number that the Mets used to make this decision: 16 million, or, the amount of money the Mets gave Vargas over a two-year deal in the off-season. And, interestingly enough, that’s the only number that approaches a justification for the decision.
Since being called up on August 3, Oswalt has looked, well, fine. He’s posted a 5.00 ERA over three starts (18 innings), with nine strikeouts and two walks. The big blemish has been home runs, giving up six, including four to the Phillies on August 16.
If you go back to the beginning of July, which doesn’t include his MLB debut (a relief appearance) and ugly first start (six runs in 2.2 innings), the numbers improve. With four more starts and 20 more innings, his ERA drops to 4.26, his strikeouts are up to 23 and the walks are at just eight. He also gave up only two more home runs in that stretch. All but one of those starts (the first one) went at least five innings.
In other words, Oswalt has been basically pedestrian and not striking guys out. But he’s also 24, and that alone at least makes him a little interesting.
In a vacuum, that’s a guy you could send to the bullpen and not really bat an eye. But then you compare him to a guy like Vargas.
Including Sunday’s start, Vargas has made a total of four starts since August 1. Even with his last start, his ERA is still a worse 5.94. That’s thanks in part to a one out, three run start against the Reds. He has also struck out 12 batters and walked six in this time frame, and allowed two home runs.
Expand your view to the whole season, and it gets even worse. His ERA balloons over a larger sample size to 7.67. Over the whole season, he’s walked 3.5 batters per nine innings, compared to Oswalt’s 2.0. He strikes out batters at a higher rate (7.2 for Vargas, 5.6 for Oswalt), though neither is very impressive.
And that’s really the crux of the argument. It’s not like the Mets are passing over a small sample size world-beater in favor of a broken pitching machine; they’re just choosing the broken pitching machine over a newer one with features people haven’t figured out how to use yet. The Mets may find out that Oswalt isn’t suited in the rotation—which would be unlikely, at least relatively when compared to Vargas—but that’s the whole point of the exercise: to figure it out over the course of the rest of the season instead of giving up on it now in favor of a lesser option.
This decision is indicative of the Mets’ flawed decision-making process of this entire season. When you’re clearly out of contention, and the only thing you’re playing for is to help Jacob deGrom win the Cy Young, you are in the perfect situation to see what you can get from your young guys. But choosing past-their-prime veterans is what the Mets have done all season long, whether it was bringing in Adrian Gonzalez to play first base instead of Dominic Smith, still playing Jose Reyes way too much to give Amed Rosario days off to “help his production,” keeping Jeff McNeil down because he “doesn’t play third base” and then playing Jose Bautista there, or having Jay Bruce play his rehab games at first in another attempt to keep Peter Alonso down and obliquely manipulate his service time. The Mets have squandered many opportunities to actually compete next season by refusing to learn about their younger players.
The Mets should already know what they have in Vargas, but it’s entirely possible they do not, which is its own problem. Despite finishing the season tied for the MLB lead in pitcher wins, the then-34-year-old posted a -0.3 fWAR and his ERA ballooned from 2.62 to 6.38 in the second half. He walked over four batters and allowed almost two home runs per nine innings. 12 of his 18 wins came before the All-Star Break. But someone in the Mets’ front office wanted him to take the ball every fifth day for not one but two years, despite his 2017 first half being a total blip over a long and at-best a little below average career.
If Felix Hernandez, who won a Cy Young with the Mariners and had a long run as among the best pitchers in baseball, can be sent to the bullpen (despite the $26 million Seattle is paying him) then why can’t the never-was-actually-as-good Vargas? Sure, he doesn’t really have any stuff that looks like it could play up out of the bullpen, but if the Mets want to pretend they didn’t waste their money, they should stick him there and see what happens.
But beyond that, the Mets didn’t even have to really choose Vargas over Oswalt. They could have simply gone to a six-man rotation, as had been reportedly discussed, especially with Steven Matz struggling so much with injuries and being good that it could be back to a five-man at any time. Instead, Oswalt will probably be relegated to a long-relief role, where he will most often be called upon after yet another disastrous Vargas start.
It’s the Circle of Life for the 2019 Mets; a bad, old player finally is forced to give way to a younger player, the younger player isn’t an immediate superstar, and the bad old player comes back to reclaim his “rightful” place.