When Gio Gonzalez opted out of his Yankees minor-league contract last week and became a free agent, many presumed he would be immediately on the Mets’ radar when he officially became a free agent. Our own Vas Drimalitis opined that the Mets needed to go hard after Gonzalez, who has been a useful pitcher for many years, was a useful pitcher last year, and likely doesn’t even have to be that good to be better than Jason Vargas.
Yesterday, Gonzalez signed with the Milwaukee Brewers for just $2 million with incentives that can max the deal out to $4 million. While nobody on the outside can speak to Gonzalez’s preferences on where he wanted to play—he had pitched for Milwaukee late last season with good success—and one could forgive the Mets for missing out on the veteran pitcher if they had gone hard after the him but lost out due to his preference for Milwaukee, the team didn’t even seem to be overly interested in Gonzalez to begin with, even at his incredibly cheap price.
Tuesday evening, Anthony DiComo reported that the Mets’ interest in Gonzalez was more “curious” than “fervent,” and Andy Martino later backed that up. After Gonzalez signed with Milwaukee yesterday, more reports came out explaining the Mets’ lack of interest and summarized how the Mets view both Gonzalez and Vargas:
Mets viewed Gio as a marginal upgrade over Vargas at best. Weren’t prepared to offer guaranteed dollars and face the prospect of carrying him all season, even if he flopped (the Mets seldom eat bad contracts).— Mike Puma (@NYPost_Mets) April 24, 2019
From multiple sources: Milwaukee was a better fit for Gonzalez because 1) familiarity and 2) were able to offer more assurances about starting role.— Andy Martino (@martinonyc) April 24, 2019
The Mets, internally as well as publicly, are still committed to giving Vargas chances to stick in rotation
These explanations from the Mets contain some flat-out inaccuracies and impressive mental gymnastics to justify their lack of interest in a useful starting pitcher available for a cheap contract when they are completely desperate for pitching depth. Let’s break these excuses down.
First of all, that the team is trying to make us believe that Gonzalez, at a base salary of $2 million, would be some sort of albatross whom they’re forced to carry and can’t possibly cut is just insulting to everyone’s intelligence. Travis d’Arnaud, for example, is earning $3.5 million this year, and they have backup plans for him lined up out the door. If Gonzalez flops and the Mets don’t want to eat $2 million, then they have way more issues that can be discussed in one article. The Mets also had no problem signing an unproductive player for $2 million last year and keeping him around for the full season when that player was Jose Reyes.
Secondly, the thought that the difference between Gonzalez and Vargas is negligible seems not to be based in any recent statistical evidence. While Gonzalez wasn’t necessarily great last year, he pitched to a fine 4.21 ERA with a 4.16 FIP and 2.1 fWAR in 171.0 solid innings overall. That was worse than he has been in years prior, which is cause for concern for the 33-year-old. He had a rough 16-start stretch in the middle of the year where he pitched to 6.53 ERA in 81 innings, but he still surrounded those starts with 90 quality innings. And even in that rough patch, Gonzalez still pitched into the 7th inning four times in those 16 games, and seven times overall for the season.
Vargas, for his part, has pitched into the 7th inning exactly once since June 2017, and it was in his final start of 2018. Overall, he pitched to an ugly 5.77 ERA and 5.02 FIP last year in 20 starts, which are similar to the numbers Gonzalez had in that rough 16-start stretch, but the difference is he didn’t also have 90 innings were he was actually good. In fact, before last night, Vargas has thrown 180.2 innings since July 2017, and owned the highest ERA of any pitcher with over 100 innings in that time span. His wOBA against was at .373, the second-highest of that group, and he had the 5th-highest HR/9. For almost two full seasons, Vargas has been objectively one of the worst starters in all of baseball. What’s more, he has not been worth 2 fWAR since 2014, while Gonzalez has not been worth less than 2 fWAR since 2010.
All in all, Gonzalez has been quite clearly better than Vargas, and seems to have a much better chance at being decent in 2019 than Vargas does. In fact, the chances that Vargas can even turn things around and return to any degree of respectability are dwindling. Many will point to his solid second half last year as a reason for optimism, where he pitched to a 3.54 ERA in 54.1 innings. However, that was helped out by an uncharacteristically low .259 BABIP and a HR/FB rate of 12.5%, which was a huge drop from the first half, but tough to repeat given that the ball seems more juiced now than ever, and Vargas is a fly ball pitcher. Not only that, but the 36-year-old’s fastball velocity has declined even further this year, now down to an average of just 85.7 MPH according to Brooks Baseball.
So that the Mets are “committed” to Vargas, to the point where he precludes them from signing Gonzalez, is completely bewildering. Ultimately, it seems like the best type of outing you can hope for from Vargas is what he showed last night. He delivered 4.2 innings of admittedly solid pitching, allowing only a run on three hits and two walks. It was probably his best outing of the year, up there with his first start where he allowed two runs through five innings against the Marlins.
So if allowing one or two runs through a maximum of five innings is basically the best-case scenario start for Vargas, with the very real chance he can’t even get out of the first inning on any given night, then what exactly are they committing to? What are they looking for here? What’s the upside they’re holding on for? The team has readily admitted they are not comfortable letting him go a third time through the order, so he’s never going to give you much length, which is completely antithetical to the whole reason they signed him, which was to be an “innings eater.”
This is not like Bartolo Colon, who could either get blown up or give you 8 solid innings any given night. This is a guy who could get blown up, or maybe weasel his way to five okay innings with some batted ball luck. That is not a major-league starter that you commit a rotation spot to. That’s a spot-starter whom you call on once a month when one of your starters gets strep throat.
The strangest part is that the team is clearly very aware of his weaknesses, as they have skipped his start or pushed him back twice already, so they know he is not very good. But the Mets actively decided it wasn’t worth it to seriously pursue Gonzalez, and instead chose to continue holding their breath every five days that Vargas can maybe give them five acceptable innings, and then torch the middle relievers to make up for his lack of length.
This is not a prudent plan. This is not a prudent plan for a team looking to compete in a tightly contested division, and this is most certainly not a prudent plan for a team that already has a shaky bullpen and is one injury away from having Chris Flexen in the starting rotation.
There’s no guarantee that Gonzalez will be great or even good, but for $2 million, it’s a chance the Mets needed to take. He has a much better chance at being a passable number five starter than Vargas does, he extends the pitching depth, and can actually give the team length in his starts and not force them to burn the bullpen every time out.
The Mets were given a great chance to add a potentially very useful pitcher for very little cost, and they willingly passed it up and haven’t given a good reason why. Now if they need to add to their pitching staff, they will have to pay an even higher price to get either Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel, or make a trade where they will likely have to part with potentially useful prospects. The process is bad, the excuses are nonsense, the plan is not clear, and the team is incomplete.