The Phillies may have missed out on the perfect opportunity to bolster a weak pitching staff Friday when they let the Mets sign Jason Vargas to a two-year, $16 million deal.
“Wait, are we talking about the same Jason Vargas here?”
Yup. From the available free agent pitchers left on the market at the start of the week, Vargas would have provided everything the Phillies were looking for.
Vargas would have been the Clay Buchholz/Jeremy Hellickson/Charlie Morton signing of 2018. It wouldn’t have made them a playoff contender, and it wouldn’t have even gotten them closer to finishing .500. But what it would have given them checked every box the Phillies should be looking for: Veteran presence (check), left-handed starter (check), relatively cheap (check) and not looking for a long-term commitment (double check).
But it would have been the best option, much better than the $150 million, six-year contract Jake Arrieta is looking for that is financially not feasible for how the Phillies want to plan their future. Even if Arrieta was the best option … why would the Phillies want him? If their intention is to contend in 2020, that’s his age-34 season when his 2017 season is basically sitting there, looking you in the face and daring you not to pay attention to all of the red flags of decline. Increased hits per nine innings. More than an 18 percent rise in FIP. A 25 percent rise in WHIP from the average of his three previous years. No, people. Jake Arrieta is not the answer. (Here’s a counter-argument by Brendan Sample.)
Who *might* have been the answer is Vargas, which sounds weird because he is and was far worse than Arrieta, is three years older and doesn’t have nearly the track record of many of the other top options. In fact, there’s an argument to made that he’s had the worst career out of what were the remaining top free agents.
There is also an argument to be made that pro-Vargas people are looking too much at his first half of 2017 (2.62 ERA, 11 home runs) and not enough at the second half (6.38, 16 home runs). That’s way too many home runs and he’d be moving to a bandbox. Maybe the bigger park of Citi Field is better suited for Vargas. As a whole, there’s a lot to there to turn you off from Vargas.
But here’s the good side of Vargas. He’s another year removed from 2016 Tommy John surgery. While he’s never been great, he’s very often been good, sometimes very good. And he’s the type of five-inning guy that the Phillies are now building around with its bullpen arms, and he could be most successful when he’s put into that kind of situation.
And guess what? He throws left-handed. You might not have realized it last season since it was such a throwaway year, but the Phillies did not have one lefty in the rotation last year once Adam Morgan went to the bullpen smartly and permanently. When you face a lineup three or four days in a row, and all the pitches come in to you the same way throughout the whole series, it’s easier to get in a groove. I have no stats to back this up and you are welcome to say I’m crazy … but I’m not. It’s true. I’m actually a little bit worried that’s the exact reason Nola was so successful in 2017, because even though he also was a righty, his pitches looked so different from everyone else on the staff that it made it more difficult to hit off of him.
In a vacuum, we’d love to just throw all this money the Phillies have stockpiled into someone like Arrieta, or Darvish before him. But that’s not the Phillies world we live in. It doesn’t make financial or baseball sense to get tied into a long-term contract for a person who will be past his prime when the Phillies are good again.
So it’s back to the drawing board for the Phillies. And unless they sign another starter from this still-interesting free agent pool, we’re staring down the barrel of 300 innings divided up by Jake Thompson, Ben Lively, Zach Eflin and Mark Leiter Jr. Suddenly, Jake Arrieta doesn’t look so bad. (Even though it would be a colossal mistake to sign him.)