PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — As far as Jason Vargas is concerned, this season is already going better than last.
Consider Vargas’ 2018 -- a series of unfortunate events that included an injury (broken glove hand) and then a terrible first half (8.60 ERA) and then another injury (strained calf) -- began around this time last year when he signed with the Mets after spring training had already started.
The Mets introduced Vargas on Feb. 18, 2018. He didn’t get into a Grapefruit League game until March 1. By the time a line drive broke the hamate bone in Vargas’ right hand on March 18, his routine — stressed as critical by pitcher and team last year when nothing was going right and again in recent days — was already out of whack.
All Vargas wanted — needed, perhaps — was a normal schedule. His hope is spring, and this season, provides it.
“It’s a better start immediately, because you knew where you’re going for camp, you know the group of guys you’re going in with,” Vargas said. “Getting things off to a goofy start, and then trying to figure out if it’s just something that was a fluke or if it’s something that you’re doing — there’s a lot of things that end up going on. Fortunate enough, we were able to get it on track and get things really rolling at the end.”
Vargas eventually did get rolling last year, posting a 3.60 ERA in 10 starts across the last two months, but it wasn’t enough to significantly sway the season totals: 5.77 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, about 4 2/3 innings per start on average.
That turned Vargas, and his hold on the No. 5 spot in the Mets’ rotation, into something of controversy among some fans. The Mets have stood by Vargas, though, declining to sign a starting pitcher to a major-league contract to challenge him for that spot. It helps that he has believers in pitching coach Dave Eiland, who saw Vargas at his best with the Royals, and new general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, who has long known Vargas through his agency, CAA. (Van Wagenen was a co-head of the baseball department alongside Vargas’ agent, Nez Balelo.)
Manager Mickey Callaway said last week that Vargas is the fifth starter. There is no spring competition.
“They’ve never given me any reason to think otherwise,” Vargas said. “That’s how I go about my work. I feel that Dave, Mickey and my past relationship with Brodie, they know what I bring to the table. I feel like they’ve expressed that to me, I appreciate that. I feel good about where they’ve said they sit with me.”
The optimistic view of Vargas’ 2019 points to the way he finished last season, his All-Star status as recently as 2017 and general longevity as an innings-eater, a reputation built over 13 major-league with a 4.27 ERA.
The pessimistic view points to Vargas’ ineffectiveness last season and since the 2017 All-Star break (6.04 ERA in 35 starts), his age (36) and below-average velocity (87 mph on his fastball in 2018).
To that end, Vargas thinks the current baseball environment — with pitchers throwing harder than ever — can work to his benefit.
“I guarantee you most of these scouting reports are the same,” Vargas said, gesturing to the lockers of his hard-throwing rotation-mates, including Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. “I’m going to be completely different kind of pitcher. It’s not going to be the same preparation as it’s going to be for your standard guys that come in throwing really hard. I feel like I can use that to my advantage, where I’m separating myself in the other direction.”
Vargas admitted that, in hindsight, he returned too quickly last year from the broken hand, after just one minor-league rehab game. “That was my call,” Vargas said. He won’t try to make up for it this season, but he does intend on being significantly better.
“I’ve never been one to go out there and try to do more than I’m capable of, but I do know I’m capable of pitching very well, very competitively,” Vargas said. “I go into every year with that mindset, that I know I have the ability to really help out any staff that I’m on. I’m going to carry my load.”