ATLANTA -- All told, Jason Vargas's second start of the season lasted six batters. He allowed two hits and three walks and recorded one out, a 359-foot flyout, before Mets manager Mickey Callaway came to retrieve him.
An outing that could cost Vargas his rotation spot was in the books.
The Mets’ fifth-starter problem reared its head again on Saturday, when Vargas allowed four runs at SunTrust Park and his potential replacement, Corey Oswalt, coughed up five more in the Mets’ 11-7 loss to the Braves. Afterward, Callaway said the Mets may consider skipping Vargas’ next start for the second time in four rotation turns. But he stopped short of saying he would replace Vargas entirely, citing the Mets’ lack of options in the organization.
“He’s just not getting outs at this point,” Callaway said. “That’s really all I can say.”
Starting for the first time in 11 days, Vargas allowed a leadoff infield single to Ozzie Albies, walked Josh Donaldson and served up an RBI hit to Ronald Acuna Jr. He then walked two consecutive batters, including Dansby Swanson with the bases loaded, before Callaway came to retrieve him. The manager subsequently earned an ejection for arguing balls and strikes with home-plate umpire Alfonso Marquez, though Vargas said he didn’t feel like he was being squeezed. Nor could he diagnose the problem in other ways.
“Unfortunately, I really wasn’t out there long enough to really evaluate what was wrong,” Vargas said, “or what wasn’t.”
The Mets softened the blow an inning later, setting a franchise record with at least six runs in seven consecutive games, but they could not complete their comeback efforts. Instead, they were left contemplating the shortcomings of Vargas, who owns a 14.31 ERA this season and a 6.32 mark since the Mets signed him to a two-year contract last February.
Oswalt, who replaced Vargas in Saturday’s game, would have been the most likely pitcher to take his rotation spot if not for Saturday’s performance. Relievers Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman “are always in the discussion,” according to Callaway, but Mets officials have been reticent to move either of them from what they consider a strong bullpen mix. At this point, though, the team has few alternatives.
Throughout the late winter, general manager Brodie Van Wagenen downplayed the Mets’ lack of rotation depth, trumpeting lesser-known arms the Mets brought in over the winter. It hasn’t worked out as the Mets envisioned; Walker Lockett’s shoulder injury has delayed his debut, while Hector Santiago’s poor spring cost him his grip on an Opening Day roster spot. Beyond those two are a trio of familiar names: Oswalt, Chris Flexen and Drew Gagnon, none of whom appear to be long-term rotation options.
Despite that lack of depth, the Mets did not seriously pursue Patrick Corbin, Gio Gonzalez or any other big-name free agents this winter. But they haven’t completely missed their chance. Still available is Dallas Keuchel, who is said to be open to both short- and long-term deals.
Keuchel fits the Mets for multiple reasons. At the most basic level, he would improve their rotation. A Cy Young Award winner in 2015, Keuchel has never replicated that level of production, but has settled in as a horse capable of routinely pitching into the seventh innings of games. Last year, he went 12-11 with a 3.74 ERA, pitching his home games at hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park.
Beyond that, acquiring Keuchel would keep him away from the Mets’ direct competitors -- particularly the Braves, who are struggling through rotation issues of their own. And it would solve a long-term problem for the Mets, who are likely to lose both Vargas and Zack Wheeler -- two-fifths of their rotation -- to free agency this winter.
But the cost is high, and the Mets have often struggled to complete deals with Keuchel’s agent, Scott Boras. Perhaps, in this time of need, that could change.
“That’s really not for me to decide,” Callaway said. “I’m happy with the players we’ve got in that room, and that’s why I focus all my energy on every single day.”