PORT ST. LUCIE Jason Vargas is a change of pace. The veteran left-hander barely lit up a radar gun Thursday in his spring training debut with the Mets. The soft-tossing lefty topped out at 87 miles an hour in two innings pitched and had a curveball clock in at 70.
Three days after Noah Syndergaard blistered the scoreboard radar gun by hitting 101 miles an hour, the contrast that the Mets are going to promote is clear. But with the current market favoring teams right now, it’s hard not to wonder if a change of pace will be enough.
A middling pitcher for most of his career (an ERA of 4.17 in 12 seasons), Vargas is coming off a career-high 18 wins in 2017. The Mets think they found a bargain in the 35-year-old, who had Tommy John surgery in 2015, signing him to a reasonable two-year, $16-million deal. After initially saying they weren’t going to add a starter, the team-friendly free agent market allowed them to pick up a starter they think gives them some stability in a rotation that has been rocked by injuries the past two seasons, a second left-hander among power righthanders and ultimately a soft-throwing change of pace from the rest of their hard-throwing rotation.
But on the day that Vargas made his first appearance in a Grapefruit League game this spring for the Mets, you had to wonder if a simple change of pace is really going to be effective.
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Sandy Alderson worked this weird free agent market well. With teams seemingly unwilling to spend, he waited out the free agents until he got a very favorable deal with Jay Bruce for three years, $39 million. He landed Todd Frazier on the eve of spring training to a two-year, $17-million deal and brought in five-time All-Star Adrian Gonzalez as insurance for Dominic Smith on a no-risk deal that pays him the major league minimum.
And Alderson was shrewdly waiting out the starting pitchers market as well, getting Vargas, who they said was their top choice at that tier, after pitchers were in camps.
But, if they waited a little longer, maybe they could have moved up a tier. At least that seems to be the approach of their National league East rival.
Thursday, reports said that the Phillies were looking to move up the timeline on their rebuild by signing two veteran pitchers. While the Mets would never have gone to the bank to sign Jake Arrieta, a guy like Lance Lynn, who has never had an ERA north of 4.00 in six years in the big leagues, would be a great fit with this rotation. He is still an available free agent on March 1, and now the Mets could be seeing a lot of him since he is rumored to be in talks with the Phillies.
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Instead, the Mets are banking on Vargas staying effective by working with Dave Eiland, the pitching coach who helped him have a breakout year in 2017, and being a wrench in their rotation of power arms.
Even Vargas knows that it’s debatable if having a soft-tossing lefty thrown into the rotation will affect hitters.
“For me I think it will be great, just because of what they bring to the table and the power they bring to the table, hopefully that puts us in a situation where if I come after one of those guys, it helps slow them down and the next guy can speed them back up,” Vargas said. “There are a lot of things that go into it. I don’t know how much it really matters, but all I know we have a pretty potent pitching staff, we’re just all looking to stay healthy.”
Vargas allowed a home run to Garrett Cooper and two other hits in two innings work Thursday. He said it was just about getting used to the team, the catcher and working on getting the feeling of competing back.
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Mickey Callaway liked how he sees the veteran fitting into the rotation.
The new Mets manager believes in the idea of having a change of pace in the rotation.
“I think some people think it doesn’t (matter). I think it would if the same guys were playing in the lineup the next day,” Callaway said. “I think it would be valuable. It’s definitely a change.”
Vargas is definitely a change of pace for hitters facing the Mets power arms in a series. We’ll see if he’s the right change for the Mets.