WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Phillies' acquisition of Jason Vargas two days before the trade deadline was a salary dump by the Mets, but it at least initially looked like a move that could provide the Phils another rotation option for 2020.
It was problematic that they even needed to turn to Vargas as a rotation upgrade, but the 2019 Phillies were ravaged by injuries after wholly misevaluating their starting pitching in the offseason. The topic of injuries came up a few times in the clubhouse after Thursday's 6-3 loss to the Nationals, which completed a five-game sweep for Washington and dropped the Phillies under .500 for the first time all season.
"I don't think we expected it to go this way," catcher Andrew Knapp said. "I think there's a lot of factors that go into that. Injuries and stuff where guys are being put in situations that they normally wouldn't be in if we had a lot of those bullpen arms. Who knows what would've happened? ... I think a healthy Phillies team is definitely in (the race). Everyone in this clubhouse thinks the same thing."
Vargas' last start was not a good one. He allowed five runs and walked five in 4⅓ innings, finishing with a 5.53 ERA in his 11 starts as a Phillie. Keep in mind, he had a 3.27 ERA in his prior 16 starts when he was traded to the Phillies.
Vargas' contract contains a club option for $8 million next season that can be bought out for $2 million. Because the Phillies were going to be on the hook for a couple million bucks, it seemed like Vargas might be able to carve out a spot on the 2020 staff by eating innings. But it hasn't gone well. He allowed four runs or more in seven of 11 starts and the Phillies went 4-7.
The Phillies simply can't keep going to this well of mediocre veteran placeholders. Over the last two seasons, the Phils' front office has been aggressive in the offseason but hesitant to trade any decent pieces for help during the season. This year, GM Matt Klentak timed the Jay Bruce trade well and acquired Corey Dickerson in a shrewd move, but every other trade was for a marginal upgrade and few of the deals worked out.
Of the players the Phillies acquired in-season in 2019, Brad Miller, Bruce and Drew Smyly have the best chances to return. Bruce is under contract next season and Miller has hit his way into a bench role if both sides can figure out a deal. Smyly has been decent as a Phillie with a 4.45 ERA and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings in a dozen starts.
But Vargas, Jared Hughes, Mike Morin, Blake Parker, Nick Vincent, Logan Morrison, Sean Rodriguez, Jose Pirela ... all eminently replaceable pieces. Seems unlikely any of them will be back.
"I think a fully healthy Philadelphia Phillies is an entirely different ballclub than we have right now," Gabe Kapler said. "I don't think anybody can dispute that."
Vargas might have been a fit on the 2020 Phillies if they didn't already have Jake Arrieta occupying a rotation spot. It is unrealistic to expect much more than No. 5 starter production from Arrieta. It is probably unrealistic to expect more than No. 4 starter contributions from Zach Eflin. The starting pitching upgrades need to come somewhere and the ideal places are the Nos. 2 and 3 spots. The Phillies need more horses around Aaron Nola, whether that means a $200 million arm in Gerrit Cole, an aging lefty like Madison Bumgarner or Cole Hamels, or an intriguing, 29-year-old, high-reward option like Zack Wheeler.
“I'd love to be back," Vargas said. "Selfishly, of course, I want to come back. I feel like it is a special group and is just really a few pieces away from having a chance to win the last game of the year. And it would be nice to have another crack at that with these guys. Hopefully, that happens, but it is a business and I understand what goes on. And baseball is going to keep going on.”
Rhys Hoskins made a comment earlier in the week that one of the major reasons the 2019 Phillies fell short was that when the lineup was clicking, the pitching wasn't and vice versa. But in truth, the Phillies' pitching was rarely "on" this season. It's why they played an entire season without winning five straight games. It's why they've lost nine times to the lowly Marlins, who were not at a pitching disadvantage any time they faced a Phillies starter other than Nola.
The Phillies need to win two of their final three games to finish with a better record than last season. They must sweep for their first winning record since 2011.
"I'm not trying to color this rosy," Kapler said. "We just lost five games straight to the Nationals. They kicked our ass. That's the cold, harsh reality of this."
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