PORT ST. LUCIE – Make no mistake about the Mets’ fifth starter.
Mickey Callaway completed New York’s rotation on Wednesday when he named Jason Vargas as the Mets’ No. 5 starter heading into Opening Day. The announcement removes right-handers Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo from the competition.
The 2019 rotation, as it stands, will feature Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz and Vargas.
Much to Mets fans’ dismay, Vargas did not fare well in his return to Flushing last year. The 36-year-old southpaw went 7-9 with a 5.77 ERA over 20 starts and 92 innings. He allowed nine runs against the Padres in his April 2018 season debut after being sidelined with a right wrist injury in training camp.
But all of that is out the window for Callaway. Instead, the Mets manager wants to focus on Vargas’ 2017 All-Star year, when he led the AL in wins (18) pitching for the Royals.
“(Vargas) comes to the field every day to win, to get better,” Callaway said. “He’s in the dugout every pitch, paying attention to everything that happens and a guy like that, when he is in a good spot mechanically, physically he’s going to pitch well. Our goal this spring training is to get him locked in … because the rest is going to take care of itself and he’s going to be a great fifth starter for us if all those things happen.”
While the Mets are effectively removing Gsellman and Lugo from the running, even if both righties have shown greater signs of improvement over Vargas, Callaway contradicted himself by stating every player must enter training camp as if their position is something to lose. It seems Gsellman and Lugo have already lost, without receiving the chance to compete and win a spot as the fifth starter.
That brings us to the competition for the first-base job. Veteran infielder Todd Frazier is likely to get the nod on Opening Day but, according to Callaway, Mets top prospect Peter Alonso “has a chance to earn it just like everybody else.”
“They know they have to earn that and that’s the way we built this team,” Callaway said. “I think it’s going to drive players to be the best they can possibly be. We have a lot of winners in that room over there. We have a lot of grinders in that room. You look at some of these guys’ careers, they grinded it out, they won, and this is the way winners and grinders want it. They don’t want to be handed anything.”
General manager Brodie Van Wagenen’s busy offseason added tons of depth to New York’s infield. Two-time Gold Glover Robinson Cano will slide into the second base slot and force rookie Jeff McNeil, a natural infielder, into the outfield so that the 26-year-old gets more reps.
McNeil brought life back to an otherwise excruciating end to the Mets season by posting an .848 OPS with 17 RBIs through August and September. New York wants to see McNeil in the 2019 lineup, but a major move to the outfield must sit well with the athlete first.
Callaway said Van Wagenen and the coaching staff will do their part in preparing players for different positions throughout the season. The manager wants to over-communicate with his players to figure out which positions they are most comfortable patrolling, making sure no stone is left unturned.
“It’s going to be a fun challenge,” Callaway said. “We have very good players in every position – and not just the front line, the second line coming in is just as good. So we’re very confident that we’re going to get all these guys playing time that they deserve, and the game just naturally takes care of playing time as we see throughout every season.”