By Ernie Palladino
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Signing Jason Vargas may not have sent shock waves through the National League.
This is the Mets, remember. Little they do makes the soil shake. But by signing their old farmhand to a reasonable (what else?) two-year, $16 million contract, they positively shored up a pitching staff desperately in need of depth.
Obviously, none of that guarantees a resurgence for 2018. Again, these are the Mets we're talking about, which means they're as likely to win 70 games as they are of sneaking into the playoffs or doing anything in between. But for a team looking at the not-so-high bar of respectability, getting a pitcher who won 18 games last year in ironically underwhelming fashion was a lot better than standing pat with a starting five that has yet to pitch a complete season together.
General manager Sandy Alderson saw just as clearly as anybody that sticking with Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz would be tantamount to playing Russian roulette with the disabled list. Just because they look healthy right now doesn't mean a twinge here or there won't create a hole or two by Opening Day.
And then there's the rest of the long, physically taxing season. Given the injury story Harvey (stress fractured scapula), Syndergaard (torn lat muscle), Wheeler (stress fracture in arm) and Matz (elbow surgery) wrote last year, new manager Mickey Callaway will have to keep a careful innings count.
His mix-and-match bullpen philosophy will help on a start-to-start basis, certainly. But there will also be times where total rest becomes necessary. Expect a few trips to the 10-day DL among that group, whether they think they need it or not.
Vargas will help overcome the overall fragility question. Unlike that foursome, he doesn't throw particularly hard. Instead, he relies on a changeup to get his outs.
That allowed him to throw 179 2/3 innings for Kansas City last year in his full-out return from 2015 Tommy John surgery. Those innings bore mixed results that belied an overtly impressive 18-11 record. After compiling an All-Star-worthy first-half ERA of 2.22, he bottomed out in the second half at 6.66 over his final 16 starts.
One might chalk that up to fatigue, a common problem when coming back from a year off.
That's behind him now. The only thing ahead of Vargas may be some resistance from the new rotation mates he'll be taking innings from.
Wheeler, for instance, wasn't delighted with the prospect of working some of his innings out of the bullpen. But given his own experience with Tommy John surgery and its rehab in 2015 and '16, he more than anyone should know about this team's needs for rotation depth.
Wheeler seems to have put his initial feelings behind him. And that's for the better. The Mets are going to need all hands necessary to make people forget 2017's crash-and-burn.
If that means limiting innings with bullpen work or a skipped start, then so be it. If that means occasionally going to a six-man rotation during the busier parts of the season, then have at it.
Vargas can only help matters, even if he doesn't come close to replicating what he did in KC last year.
The price tag? Can't beat it. Another economical pickup, right there with Anthony Swarzak, Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce, Adrian Gonzale, and Jose Reyes. Those six players put the Mets in the same financial neighborhood as last year. If the Wilpons can complain about anything, it's that Alderson has now failed to lower the $155 million payroll.
But hey, it's only money.
Vargas won't ever replace deGrom or Syndergaard at the top of the rotation. But Callaway won't expect the 35-year-old lefty to do that.
He needed depth for competition and insurance against injury for what became a physically challenged staff last season.
Vargas may not look like the sexiest pickup. But considering the looming alternative, better him than nobody.
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