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April 27, 2018 - Source: Denis Poroy/Getty Images North America

Justin Birnbaum

It Can Only Get Better From Here: Reacting to Jason Vargas’ First Mets Start

He was supposed to anchor the middle of the Mets rotation. After an abysmal first start in San Diego, many of us are wondering whether Jason Vargas will carry his weight in 2018.

When the New York Mets signed Jason Vargas to a two-year, $16 million deal back in February, it was seen as the icing on the cake for a very productive offseason. They lacked the typical big splash that generates shockwaves around the league, but their cold, calculated, and well-placed acquisitions positioned this team to rebound after an abysmal 2017. Vargas’ key purpose was to shore up a rotation that had seen its depth dwindle only a year ago. The Apple Valley, California native was coming off a career year with the Kansas City Royals, garnering his first All-Star selection on the strength of a spectacular first half.

And much to the surprise to all pundits, the Mets exploded to a record-setting start. But they did so without Jason Vargas. The left-hander suffered a fractured right-hand in Spring Training that would deprive him the opportunity to make the Opening Day roster. He would undergo surgery to remove the hamate bone in his right hand that required roughly a month of rehabilitation. His recovery came to an end this past Saturday and we got our first look at the Mets’ newest starting pitcher against the San Diego Padres.

Unfortunately for Vargas, it was not a night to remember. Vargas’ line says it all — nine runs, nine hits, and three walks in only 3 and ⅔ innings. In talking to the New York Post’s Mike Puma, Vargas had this to say about his poor outing.

“I made some mistakes early, got behind and I got them into some situations where they felt good swinging the bat and it just kept rolling from there. I wasn’t able to put some guys away with two strikes or two outs and just kept letting them extend innings.”

Saturday’s disaster was a callback to Vargas’ first tour of duty with the Mets. The 35-year-old first joined the Mets organization in 2006 by way of a trade with the Miami Marlins. One year later he worked his way to the major leagues, starting two games for the Amazins’. Injuries and ineffectiveness marred his time in Flushing and following the 2008 season, he was shipped to Seattle in the trade that brought J.J. Putz to Queens. Ironically, in Vargas’ second and last start with the Mets back in 2007, he also surrendered nine runs and failed to make it out of the fourth inning.

An early calling card of the 2018 Mets has been seeing the back-end of their rotation struggle. Between the hard times that have fallen on Steven Matz and Matt Harvey’s relegation to the bullpen, stability is the one thing this team cannot afford to sacrifice in their starting rotation. After Saturday, we are all left to question whether Vargas can handle the weight of expectations long-term.

For now, we’ll have to consider the ancillary benefits that came with the addition of Vargas, primarily, lighting a fire under Zack Wheeler. Wheeler was one of the few players to make his feelings known about this particular acquisition. During Spring Training, the Mets had eight major league caliber arms in camp, so the prospect of bringing in a ninth didn’t excite the oft-injured right-hander. Facing the possibility of a role change with new blood in the organization, this is what Wheeler had to say to Abbey Mastracco of NJ Advance Media back in February.

“I’m just here to be a starting pitcher. That’s what I’ve been and that’s what I’m always going to be. When I’m healthy, I know I’m just as good as anybody out there. So that’s what I’m concentrating on.”

Even with the injury to Vargas, Wheeler found himself as the odd man out in the rotation. He failed to make the Opening Day roster and began the season at Triple-A Las Vegas. But the success of Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo prompted Mickey Callaway to stick with them as relievers and with Vargas weeks away, a spot in the rotation opened up for Wheeler. And thankfully, the early returns have been good. With the exception of one bump in the road against St. Louis, Wheeler has trotted out three successful starts in 2018. Thanks to mechanical changes, the right-hander now has the opportunity to cement himself in the middle of the rotation and for that newfound motivation, he certainly has Jason Vargas to thank.

Ultimately, the jury will be out for the foreseeable future on Jason Vargas. His first start may have been a complete disaster, but is by no means an indicator for how 2018 will pan out for him. The era of the “Five Aces” has come and gone, and who knows what the future holds for Matz or Harvey. But if Vargas can live up to his billing, then the Mets just might have something special in the works in 2018.

Main Photo: April 27, 2018 – Source: Denis Poroy/Getty Images North America

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