Jonathon Niese, Binghamton's 21-year-old left-hander, streaked to a hot start in 2008 but has since…
Vargas Ready to Contribute
They were dropping like flies.
It began on March 30, the day before the season opener, when the Mets sent Orlando Hernandez to the disabled list so that he could work on building up arm strength.
Then it was Pedro Martinez who suffered a strained left hamstring in just the second game of the season, shackling him to the disabled list for over a month.
There had been concerns that the team didn't do enough to build pitching depth in the organization, despite grabbing the best pitcher in baseball, Johan Santana, in January. But no one expected to have almost half of the rotation knocked out after playing just two games.
That's where Claudio Vargas, who had been cut by the Milwaukee Brewers just weeks before, came in.
The Mets signed Vargas on April 10, hoping that he would add depth to a rotation that had been ailing. It's his fourth organization in as many years; he played for Washington and Arizona in 2005, Arizona in 2006 and Milwaukee in 2007.
He was a viable candidate to start for Milwaukee during spring training, when he had a 3.86 ERA in five starts. But due to a rotation that had eight solid options, they decided to cut ties with the 6-3, 225 pound right hander.
"It's hard," Vargas said. "It's hard when you go there and you try to do your job and try to do what they ask you to do, and later on they say they don't want you anymore. One week before the season started, all the teams are full."
That left him for almost two weeks without a team and without repetitions – putting him further behind than some of his teammates. New Orleans pitching coach Dan Warthen said it showed.
"Vargas, who traditionally has been a lift and fall pitcher, was relying too much on his arm in the delivery," Warthen said. The two have been working together to get his hips more involved and making sure that he's not turning his back more than needed.
"Sometimes I try to be aggressive, and that's why when I move forward the body goes forward, and my arm would stay back," Vargas said. "We don't want that. We want the hands to move together with the legs and stay by."
If Thursday's start is any indication, his time with Warthen has been well spent. He threw seven scoreless innings, striking out seven and giving up just four hits and no walks. In two starts, he's struck out 11 and walked just one.
"I felt great tonight. I hit my spots with all my pitches," Vargas said. "So that tells me that I'm getting ready with everything."
Warthen feels that Vargas may need one more start to get to where he'd like for his pitcher to be.
"The arm is in shape, but the execution of the pitches is not quite there yet," Warthen said. "He has three quality Major League pitches. When he gets his location, then he's going to be a quality major league pitcher again."
And that's exactly what Vargas has been over the years: a quality Major League pitcher, just a tick below average, but one that can eat up innings and is willing to come out of the bullpen in relief.
He's won 22 games over the last two years and has only had a losing record once in the Majors, which was during his 6-8 rookie campaign.
What has the Mets and fans excited about the signing is the risk-free nature of the deal. Vargas had an option for 2008 in which his high-value minor league contract is being paid by Miwaukee, meaning that they're getting a nice insurance policy for a nominal cost.
Vargas liked the team because of his chances of making the rotation after both Martinez and Hernandez went down. He was also familiar with Mets general manager Omar Minaya, who was the general manager of the Montreal Expos during Vargas' rookie year when he was with the organization.
"I've got a good chance. And when I saw Pedro and El Duque hurt, I said let me sign with these guys, because Omar knows me, and I know a lot of people on the team," Vargas said.
The plan for the Mets when Vargas was signed was to stick him as soon as he was ready into the rotation, so that he could sub in for Hernandez.
Though Vargas is inching closer, Nelson Figueroa has put the brakes on that plan. After being called up as an emergency replacement for Hernandez, he's posted a solid 4.81 ERA – not bad for a team's fifth starter.
Fortunately for Vargas, the forecast isn't rosy for Figueroa, whose 25/19 k/bb ratio and a 1.57 WHIP suggests that other options could be pursued. He also could snag the spot occupied by Mike Pelfrey, who has a 5.27 ERA and more walks than strikeouts, leaving Vargas is confident that he'll be able to sneak into the rotation.
"I think if I can keep pitching like I did [Thursday], then maybe we can do something," Vargas said. "If not, we'll see what happens."
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