Signed what seemed to be an overly-generous two-year, $16 million contract during the 2017 offseason, Jason Vargas’s 2018 was even worse that most expected, as reflected by his brutal 5.77 ERA, 65 ERA+, and -1.0 bWAR. These numbers would have looked even worse were they not were mitigated by his final seven starts of the season, when Vargas went 5-1 with a 2.56 ERA (3.47 FIP).
Whether encouraged by these numbers, too cheap to sign any back of the rotation depth to compete with Vargas, or some combination of both, the lefty entered the 2019 season the unquestioned fifth starter. After a rough start to this season, Vargas has actually looked the part of a useful veteran and been an acceptable on-field performer, putting up a 4.25 ERA (96 ERA+) and 0.9 bWAR over 82.2 innings. In the final year of his contract—with a team option that’s sure to be declined—on a team with very long playoff odds, Vargas is a clear candidate to be moved at the trade deadline.
Unfortunately for the Mets, a serviceable veteran back-end starter—particularly a soft-tosser unlikely to crack a postseason rotation or easily switch to a viable bullpen role—is not likely to garner high bidding. However, both Wild Card races are shaping up to be tight, wildly competitive ones in which every win will be precious, soVargas is not without use to a contender.
While not a perfect comparison, the Oakland A’s recently acquired Homer Bailey—a pitcher with a bit more pedigree and better raw stuff than Vargas, but relatively similar recent results (98 ERA+ over 90 innings this season)—for Kevin Merrell, a light-hitting Double-A middle infielder who had been ranked the #17 prospect in the A’s organization by MLB.com.
If they eat the remainder of his salary, a low-level, C grade-type prospect would probably be the best the Mets could hope to net for Vargas. An allotment of international free agent pool money might be another realistic option that could provide the Mets something which might hopefully impact their future someday. One need only look at former Met farmhand John Gant—traded with Rob Whalen for Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson—as an example of a low-level prospect later developing into a useful major league player. Heck, Chris Paddack was acquired for Fernando Rodney.
Based on recent history, the most likely result is that the Mets do not eat salary, and trade Vargas for pure salary relief or an older/career minor leaguer, rather than throwing a dart and seeing if they hit a rare young player who becomes a late bloomer or hits their 90th percentile outcome. Hopefully they spend the money and find a buyer who will allow them to at least turn the last couple of months of Vargy into a lottery ticket for the future.