Phillies Add a Modest Upgrade in Jason Vargas

The Phillies have bolstered the back-end of a flagging rotation, which by some measures ranks among the National League’s worst. What’s more, they’ve done so through an upgrade obtained from within the division, namely the Mets’ Jason Vargas. The 36-year-old southpaw doesn’t light up radar guns or dominate hitters, but he does give a youngish rotation a left-handed presence with playoff experience — and at a negligible cost to boot. His being dealt by the Mets was highly anticipated, not only given Sunday’s acquisition of Marcus Stroman, but also because he angered the Mets’ brass with his involvement in a clubhouse altercation with a beat reporter in June.

Philadelphia gets:

LHP Jason Vargas
Cash considerations

New York gets:

C Austin Bossart

Vargas, who is now in his 14th major league season, has rebounded from a dreadful, injury-wracked 2018, during which he was torched for a 5.77 ERA and 5.02 FIP in just 92 innings, and an ugly beginning to this year when he yielded 10 runs in his first 6.1 innings and failed to last five innings in three of his first four starts. Overall, he’s pitched to a 4.01 ERA and 4.71 FIP, and since returning from a mid-May left hamstring strain that cost him 19 days, he’s turned in a 3.34 ERA and 4.01 FIP.

At this stage of a career that has included stops in Miami (2005-06), Seattle (2009-12), Anaheim (2013), and Kansas City (2014-17), as well as two stints with the Mets (2007, ’18-19), Vargas fits into the mold of the crafty lefty. He has the distinction of owning the slowest four-seam fastball of any pitcher with at least 10 major league innings this year, with an average of 84.9 mph (Mets teammate Steven Matz and the Indians’ Adam Cimber are slower, but the pair has totaled just five four-seamers between them). Vargas mixes his four-seamer (29.9%) and sinker (22.1%) with a curve (13.1%) and a very effective changeup (34.1%); the latter pitch has generated a 17.1% swinging strike rate and a .198/.250/.344 line (65 wRC+) on contact.

Vargas’ overall swinging strike rate (9.6%) ranks in the 30th percentile among the 57 NL pitchers with at least 80 innings this year, while his 20.3% strikeout rate is in the 26th percentile, and his 10.5% strikeout-to-walk differential is in the 14th percentile. What he does do well is limit hard contact; per Statcast, his average exit velocity of 86.4 mph is in the 86th percentile of all pitchers, while his 33.7% hard hit rate is in the 71st percentile. Having said that, Vargas’ home run rate (1.34 per nine) only ranks in the 40th percentile, and it rates as a concern that he’s a fly baller moving to a more hitter-friendly ballpark; in terms of 2018 park home run factors, he’s going from Citi Field’s 94 to Citizens Bank’s 99. At Citizens Bank, 6.25% of all batted balls have been homers, the majors’ fifth-highest rate, while Citi Field’s 5.33% ranks 17th.

While some of that may be specifically related to the personnel, the Philadelphia staff’s 1.68 homers per nine allowed is the NL’s highest rate, as is the starters’ 1.69 per nine. Meanwhile, the rotation’s 4.59 ERA ranks 11th in the league, their 5.07 FIP dead last, and their 21.1% strikeout rate just 12th. Somehow, despite being outscored by 22 runs and dealing with a slew of injuries in their bullpen, the team is 55-50, 6 and 1/2 games back in the NL East and one game back in the Wild Card race.

Aside from Aaron Nola, who himself hasn’t pitched to the level of his past two seasons, every rotation regular has been subpar:

2019 Phillies’ Top Starters
Aaron Nola 23 135.1 26.4% 1.33 3.72 85 4.31 96 1.8
Jake Arrieta 21 123.2 17.7% 1.38 4.51 103 5.00 111 0.8
Zach Eflin 20 112.2 18.6% 1.60 4.63 106 4.86 108 1.1
Nick Pivetta 13 69.0 19.0% 2.09 5.74 131 5.74 128 0.0
Vince Velasquez 12 56.1 26.6% 2.24 4.47 102 5.41 121 0.2
Jerad Eickhoff 10 53.1 20.0% 2.70 5.40 124 6.55 146 -0.4

Eickhoff has been on the injured list with biceps tendinitis since June 18. Arrieta has been pitching through a bone spur in his elbow that will eventually require surgery. Eflin has been raked over the coals by hitters in July (12.64 ERA, 7.38 FIP), and Velasquez has been living on borrowed time (3.52 ERA, 5.77 FIP). Reinforcements are necessary, and while it’s not clear yet who Vargas — whose 1.1 WAR would tie for second in that above group — will replace, the bar for improvement is pretty low.

Aside from one opener-style start by Jose Alvarez, one start by Drew Smyly, and three by Cole Irvin, all of the Phillies’ starts this year have been taken by righties; the rotation’s .367 wOBA allowed against left-handed batters is the majors’ second-highest. Unfortunately, Vargas hasn’t done as well against lefty hitters as he has against righties, either this year (.320 wOBA versus .296) or since returning from Tommy John surgery in late 2016 (.340 versus .319).

Though he had been relatively consistent since his early-season hiccups, allowing more than three runs just twice in his past 16 starts — in part because he was pulled before completing five innings five times in that span — Vargas had fallen out of favor with the Mets because of his role in an ugly verbal altercation with Newsday reporter Tim Healey in June. After manager Mickey Callaway overreacted to Healey’s seemingly innocuous statement, “See you tomorrow,” Vargas told Healey, “I’ll knock you the f— out, bro,” and then charged at the reporter, but was restrained by Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Gomez.

While Callaway eventually issued a public apology (it took him multiple tries), Vargas refused to, saying,

“It was an unfortunate situation. I don’t think all of the information was really out there. I don’t think that this is the time to get into that, but I think that anybody who knows me or anybody who’s played with me though the duration of my career, there’s never been a situation like that, so to think that it just happened out of the blue would be foolish. For the info to be out there like that and for one side to be told, that’s just not it.”

Vargas’ lack of accountability reportedly angered the Mets’ brass. The team fined him $10,000, the maximum that could be levied without triggering a potential grievance. An anonymous Mets official told Yahoo Sports’ Wallace Matthews, “Think he’ll be here next year?” and added that he might not be a Met by August 1. “This did not help him.”

Phillies general manager Matt Klentak, who was an assistant GM with the Angels during Vargas’ time there, said he investigated the incident, which he called“out of character” and “an isolated episode,” before the trade. “We did ask a lot of questions and learn a lot about that,” and about Vargas in general,” said Klentak, concluding, “I think this guy is going to be a big plus for our clubhouse.”

The Mets are notoriously skittish about trading with the crosstown Yankees, and while they had been that way when it came to the Phillies as well, last year, the two teams pulled off a pair of trades last summer, their first since 2001. On July 27, the Mets dealt Asdrubal Cabrera to the Phillies for pitching prospect Franklyn Kilome, and on August 28, they sent Jose Bautista to the City of Brotherly Love in exchange for cold hard cash.

The proof of how badly the Mets wanted Vargas gone is in the rest of this deal. Bossart, a 14th-round pick in 2015 out of the University of Pennsylvania, is a 26-year-old backstop who was hitting .195/.303/.335 in his second go-round at Double-A Reading. At Penn, he was teammates with Bradley Wilpon, son of Mets COO Jeff Wilpon. He profiles as an organizational player; he wasn’t even listed on the Philadelphia system’s five-prospect depth chart in the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2019, nor did he crack our 36-player Top Phillies Prospects list in January. Wrote Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper in reaction to the trade, “He is a solid receiver who has thrown out 34 percent of basestealers in two seasons at Double-A Reading. But it’s much harder to find scouts who are convicted that he will hit enough for a long-term MLB role… seems most likely to have a solid career in Triple-A as a part-time backstop.”

The Mets, who are known to throw nickels around like manhole covers, are also sending $2.9 million to Philadelphia to help offset what remains of Vargas’ $8 million salary and a $2 million buyout on next year’s $8 million club option. The surprise is that they dealt him within the division and to a contender instead of, say, exiling him to some deadline-depleted club to play out the string.

In any event, this is a very modest upgrade for the Phillies, but an upgrade nonetheless. If it’s the best they do to patch their rotation before the July 31 deadline, then Klentak and company will have fallen short of the mark, but if they add a higher-impact starter such as Matthew Boyd, Madison Bumgarner, Zack Greinke, or Mike Minor — all of whom they’ve been connected to in recent weeks — then the addition of Vargas will make for a solid complement. As for the Mets, we’re still waiting to see the real fallout from the Stroman deal, namely the expected trade of either Syndergaard or Zack Wheeler. Stay tuned.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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4 years ago

Dealing Vargas makes sense after the Stroman trade (assuming you are keeping Wheeler). I just don’t get the deal. I would have thought they could get more than a non-prospect especially since they are paying down some of his deal. The Mets also claim that they think they still have a shot this year (Fangraphs has them at ~15%, the next 10 days will be very telling. They play 3 against the White Sox, 3 against the Pirates, and 4 against the Marlins, have to be around .500 after that stretch). If that is the case, why deal him to a team competing for the wild card. I have to imagine a team like the Yankees would’ve taken him for free without asking for money back.

4 years ago

I think the prices on starting pitching at all levels–back-end, mid-rotation, and better than that–are much less than we’ve seen reported. So far, the back-end guys (Bailey, Vargas, Cashner) have been exchanged for non-prospects, and a good guy for your playoff rotation (Stroman) got exchanged for Woods Richardson and Kay. This market is way softer than anyone expected.

4 years ago

For the Mets to have even a long shot, I think they’d need to go 8-2 in the next 10 games, to get over .500, 58-57. Even with 10 games against the White Sox, Pirates, and Marlins, I’d say the odds of that happening are pretty poor.

4 years ago

It’s less even about the games back than it is they have a ton of teams between them and a wild card spot. Things don’t just have to go right in terms of winning a bunch of games- a 5.5 game deficit is big but not insurmountable. Things have to go wrong for 7 other teams. The distribution of outcomes, it does not remotely favor the Mets. I’m not sure if fangraphs playoffs odds are even pricing the number of teams in the way correctly. Maybe they are.

4 years ago

I start wondering about collusion. How else to explain the absurdly low prices?

4 years ago
Reply to  drewsylvania

Oh, how quickly we forget…

4 years ago

Seriously though, especially since they provided salary relief too. Nationals have Raudy Read, Tres Barrera and Jackson Reetz, who all seem twice as interesting as Bossart and who I can’t imagine they wouldn’t have given up for a cheap average starter.
Maybe the “clubhouse issues” had teams leery.