Before Jason Vargas made his second start of the season on Saturday, beat reporters asked Mets manager Mickey Callaway what he expected from his team’s fifth starter. It was a reasonable question, given how badly Vargas has struggled over this season and the last, but also a difficult one to answer, given how badly Vargas has struggled over this season and the last. If Callaway were to base his expectations only on the work that Vargas has done with the Mets, he might have said that he expected his starter to be knocked out during the fourth inning, after having given up more than three runs and slightly less than one home run. Actual baseball games don’t deal in fractions of runs or tenths-of-a-homer, though, and also it would be rude and unkind for Callaway to say, “I expect Jason Vargas, the fifth starter for the MLB team I manage, to get just absolutely fucking torched out there tonight, yeesh.” So Callaway just said, “I expect Vargas.”
And Vargas was what he got. Vargas allowed five of the six Braves he faced to reach base and was removed after 36 pitches, by which point his ERA had inflated from 9.00 to 14.21. He was replaced by Corey Oswalt, who was nearly as bad. Oswalt eventually gave way to the veteran lefty Luis Avilan, who you will no doubt be surprised to learn was also bad. The respective ERAs of the first three Mets pitchers to take the mound were, by game’s end, 14.21, 12.27, and 12.71. It’s April, and ERA’s fluctuate quickly this early in the year; Avilan’s is already down to a rock solid 10.80, for instance. But also all of those numbers are just entirely too large. The cumulative effect of those numbers is frankly rude.
As it relates to poor Jason Vargas, a highly questionable free agent signing who has underperformed even the most pessimistic projections, this is mostly a Mets problem and therefore of no great interest to well-adjusted baseball fans. But the situation that the Mets have created and refuse to fix with their defective fifth starter is strikingly universal across the game. The Mets are not the only team with aspirations to contend that is unaccountably sticking with a player who’s a sunk cost or worse, just as they were one of many teams that spent the offseason opting to get An Acceptable Bit Better instead of A Lot Better.
The universal thing about all these specific failures is not just that these teams are already seeing the consequences every time their bullpen fills a diaper or their own analogue to Jason Vargas takes his ultraviolent turn in the rotation. It’s that all of them are going through that while their fans know that two of the last offseason’s better free agents are still out there for any and every team to sign. In a way that is new and strange and not especially pleasant, the arrival of actual baseball games somehow did not succeed in bringing the offseason to an end. The first few weeks of the 2019 season have instead been haunted by Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel in a way that has become difficult to ignore.
The Mets fell to 10-8 on Wednesday afternoon, but they remain in the mix near the top of the National League East, which promises to be one of the most hotly contested divisions in the sport. No team with a winning record has a worse overall ERA than the Mets’ cumulative 5.54, although the NL Central–leading Brewers are currently close at 5.34; Milwaukee’s rotation managed just three quality starts over its first 19 games. Last year, the Atlanta Braves won the National League East and the Chicago Cubs won 95 games and the top Wild Card spot. This year, Atlanta’s bullpen has a 5.17 ERA and the Cubs sit at 5.25; the Cubs bullpen has converted just one of its four save opportunities, while the Braves have converted two of five. Red Sox relievers have allowed 14 homers in the team’s first 19 games, which somehow still makes them more effective than the team’s starters, who have allowed opposing hitters to post a cumulative .289/.362/.524 line on the season.
The baseball season is very long, and not all or even most of this is going to last. But while these numbers are not permanent, they are all real. The standings will likely look different in September—the Padres probably aren’t going to battle the Dodgers for first place all season and the Mariners will not be slugging it out with the Astros in September and the Red Sox are not the second-worst team in the American League. But everything happening now counts as much as everything that will happen then.
And things change, within reason. The Padres didn’t plan on contending for first place this season, but that was a reasonable goal as soon as next year; if they think they’ve got a chance to turn the clock forward a year or two, they could easily do so by adding Dallas Keuchel to their starting rotation or Craig Kimbrel to the back end of what is already a very effective bullpen. If the Braves or Cubs wanted to make the last three outs of their games less harrowing and a return to the postseason more likely, they could simply sign one of the very best closers in the game, who is currently unemployed. If the Mets didn’t want to watch Jason Vargas drowsily throw batting practice in games that count in the standings, they could quite literally replace him with 2015 American League Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, right now.
There are valid reasons why teams might have been wary of making big financial commitments to Keuchel or Kimbrel, but while both are edging into the decline phases of their careers, their top-line and underlying stats suggest that both are still very valuable players. This is not really very complicated: every contending team currently relying on players who are below replacement level—and in the case of Vargas and a quorum of Boston’s relievers, for instance, are likely to remain there—could replace those players with these highly available above-average Major Leaguers. It would cost money, of course, but every MLB team has money. Doing so would be less expensive than it might have several months ago—Keuchel went into the offseason looking for a contract similar to the one Jake Arrieta got from Philadelphia last year, but is now reportedly open to a “good one-year deal”; Kimbrel wanted a record contract for a closer, but Ken Rosenthal reports that he’s now open to considering something more in line with the three-year, $39 million deal that Zack Britton got from the Yankees. And yet somehow two players that could improve every team in baseball are currently helping none of them.
Whether it reflects active collusion or just the passive groupthink of a class of wealthy pouty mediocrities, ownership’s decision to freeze out the last couple classes of free agents has clearly had an impact on baseball’s semi-free market. A wave of young players have lately signed extensions—some notably more generous than others—in large part because MLB’s owners have succeeded in making free agency seem much less appealing and much riskier. Owners have tried and failed to destroy free agency through lockouts and ham-fisted collusion, but are now finding more success in borrowing the contemporary The Rest Of Everything tactic of honoring a rule in the most legalistic ways while simultaneously making it so wildly shitty in practice that it no longer really resembles what it is supposed to be.
During the offseason, the apparently universal lack of interest in freely available stars like Keuchel and Kimbrel was easy to read as a sort of strategic show of force—owners showing players just how much more they valued their actual principle of Not Paying Workers Any More Than We Can Get Away With than they did the professed one of fielding the best possible baseball team. With meaningful games now being played and these players still out of work, it looks more like what it actually was all along. As the offseason’s heatedly denied compromises and evasions and collusion-scented passivities spill out onto the season itself, what once seemed like strategy now just looks like spiteful rich men’s choice, and feels like an insult. We are watching the baseball that the owners chose to give us, and it is obvious where and how it falls short of what it could and should be.
Back here in April, the Mets are sticking with Vargas. Both Callaway and GM Brodie Van Wagenen have said that Vargas will make his next scheduled start, against the Cardinals on April 20. “He is a professional and we’re excited about what he can do,” Van Wagenen said. “I don’t think we operate in the world of temptation.” That last bit is a strange phrase, and hard to parse on its own. But you need only look around the league to see what it means. They already have what they wanted.