“I don’t think you can have too much pitching,” Callaway said.
Last year, the Mets didn’t have enough. They headed into the 2017 season with eight starters — Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman and Rafael Montero — but most of that group ended up injured or pitched poorly, the most obvious reason for a 70-92 finish.
Until recently, the Mets had essentially the same rotation and depth, and the same worry that it might not be enough.
“We were somewhat at risk,” General Manager Sandy Alderson said. “But at the same time, we wanted to manage our own expectations.”
“You have to remind yourself,” he added, “that there’s this ebb and flow over the course of the season related to health and performance.”
The Mets’ ebbs were many last year. Once the team’s backbone, the rotation posted a 5.14 earned run average and logged 865 ⅔ innings, the team’s lowest total since 1994 and one that increased the strain on an imperfect bullpen.
The Mets used 12 starting pitchers last season, just above the major league average over the past couple years. Historically, the teams with the healthiest rotations are more likely to make the playoffs.
“We need to get back to the point where seven or eight guys are starting all of our games, not 11, 12 or 13,” Alderson said. “If we can do that, we’re going to be pretty good. Jason really helps us in that regard.”
Vargas posted a 4.16 earned run average and an 18-11 record for Kansas City last year, and he was an All-Star thanks to a strong first half. But a different achievement probably mattered more to Alderson and Callaway: Vargas pitched nearly 180 innings, which would have been second on the Mets last year, and his 32 starts would have ranked first.
DeGrom (3.53 E.R.A. over 201 innings) was the only Mets starter to pitch all season. Next best was Gsellman, a rookie who threw just under 120. At the time, the Mets’ depth was so strained that they gave 18 starts to Montero (5.52 E.R.A.) and even called up the prospect Chris Flexen (7.88 E.R.A.) straight from Class AA Binghamton.
As free agents languished on the market in this historically sluggish off-season, the Mets saw an opportunity and some affordability in Vargas for two years and $18 million.
Although he is 35, Vargas came highly recommended by Eiland, his former pitching coach in Kansas City, for his work ethic and skill set (guile, movement and mid-80s fastballs) compared to the Mets’ rotation of hard throwers. That he had averaged 190 innings a season for five years until Tommy John surgery in 2015 eased some concerns, too.
“I take pride in being somebody that the guys behind me can count on,” Vargas said. “And they’re not going to have to wonder if I’m going to step out there on the field on that fifth day and be able to give them a quality start.”
Yet even before signing Vargas, Alderson said he was optimistic the team’s new coaching staff and some revised medical and training protocols would yield better health. Unlike past years, pitchers were given an off-season throwing program, and Callaway and Eiland were diligent about regular check-ins.
The results have been positive in initial spring training starts: Wheeler, who used bone-strengthening medicine in the off-season, has hit 97 miles per hour with his fastball already; Gsellman’s sinker was improved after off-season shoulder exercises; and Lugo looked sharp after a winter spent building strength around his elbow.
Alderson also said the off-season checkups by the training staff had “a lower level of tolerance for variance and idiosyncrasies.” The team believed Syndergaard’s bulking up and improper weight training last winter were factors in the right latissimus tear that forced him to miss four and a half months last season. He has since changed his workouts.
“I felt more limber, more athletic and more under control,” Syndergaard said after his spring training debut on Monday. “Pitching is kind of controlled aggression, and I think I was able to control that a little better.”
Against the Houston Astros on Monday, Syndergaard looked to be back to his adrenaline-fueled, flame-throwing self, with two perfect innings. Although 11 of his 22 pitches were at least 100 m.p.h., he said he did not feel he was “exerting a whole lot of effort.” He froze Jose Altuve, the reigning American League most valuable player, with a darting 92 m.p.h. changeup.
The rest of the once-injured Mets starters — Lugo (elbow), Harvey (shoulder), Matz (elbow surgery), Wheeler (stress injury in upper arm) and Gsellman (hamstring strain) — also appear to be in relatively good health.
That did not mean the team’s rotation depth was suddenly better, however. Matz has never pitched a full major league season, and Wheeler hasn’t done so in three years. Harvey, who is a free agent at the end of the season, hasn’t been the same since the 2015 World Series, and Lugo has the specter of Tommy John surgery hanging over him. Gsellman regressed. Montero is out of minor league options. And Flexen is still green.
Hence the need for Vargas, who will make his spring debut on Thursday. Although Callaway has said Wheeler is competing for a spot in the starting rotation, Vargas’s arrival could allow Montero, Gsellman, Lugo or Wheeler to be pushed into the major league bullpen, or stashed away in Class AAA Las Vegas. The Mets added even more depth on Monday by signing starter A.J. Griffin, who posted a 5.94 E.R.A. with the Texas Rangers last season.