Whoever decided to release Jason Vargas  and replace him with this new dynamic starting pitcher VARGY deserves the full-time GM job. VARGY was NOT AT ALL VARGAS as he tamed the Phillies for five innings and lasted well into the sixth on Sunday night, providing all the pitching required to propel the Mets to an 8-2 victory  over a legitimate playoff contender. Of course the guy wearing VARGY on the back of his two-toned pullover shirt, was Jason Vargas, whose performance was, for the second outing in a row, no worse than SORT OF VARGAS.
If attending the Little League Classic is teaching the kids in Williamsport anything, it’s that there’s a chance for everybody to help his team, regardless of past foibles . Jason Vargas, sporting an adorable nickname like almost every Met and Phillie, has had the worst of seasons, but lately, over his last two starts, has been absolutely decent.
So don’t give up, young people who have struck out repeatedly, dropped fly balls with the bases loaded, let grounders go through your legs, thrown wild pitches and gotten yourselves distracted by daffodils. Someday you can come through. Someday you can aspire to not being VERY VARGAS.
Sunday Night Baseball is generally the most cynical of enterprises — encompassed most blatantly in ESPN’s insistence on detonating previously scheduled Sunday afternoon dates and repackaging them without any fan’s approval as prime time content — but this edition makes for an annual exception. It started a little after seven instead of after eight. It wasn’t overwhelmed by commercialism, except for advertising baseball. It had adults willing to play as kids and reach out to kids. I couldn’t speak to the ESPN announcing, because I opted for the mute button and WOR over the stylings of Matt Vasgersian, but it was fun as hell to watch.
There were THOR, WHEELS, MATZY and DE GROM (the best name in baseball) hanging out in the stands. There were TODDFATHER and SCOOTER revisiting the site of childhood glories. There were thirteen singles and one double, the extra-base hit a real “way to go, Dom!” occasion for BIG D, the kid who is best known for showing up late and usually playing left out (I can relate, Dom, I can relate). There was even a handshake line between the triumphant Mets and the nice-try Phillies. I hope somebody’s mom took a cue from the best practices established by the Long Beach Rec Center’s Pee Wee League of 1971 and treated everybody to ice cream at Jahn’s  afterward.
The Mets’ unorthodox road trip — eleven games in ten days in five different venues, culminating at a minor league park in the middle of Pennsylvania — didn’t kill them and perhaps made them stronger. They went 7-4, lost zero series, acquitted themselves nicely in several showcase opportunities and provided a week’s worth of tweetable highlights hitting, pitching and simply being. The Mets set records some games, shut down offenses others and smiled for the camera continually. Their participation in the pennant race never materialized in 2018, but as we pass the three-quarter turn en route to the finish line, they’ve suddenly earned themselves some of what’s always worth spelling out:
They won’t get much of it for long, because they’re still the 2018 Mets. The next time they noticeably stumble, this late summer vacation from their problems will be mostly forgotten. Not that they haven’t earned derision, too, but playing well under relatively challenging circumstances is the stuff of TCB. True, there hasn’t been much pressing business to take care of from the perspective of fourth place, but you can only deal with what’s in front of you. The eleven games in the five cities were dealt with ably and satisfyingly. Not much of a slogan, but versus the way most of this year has gone, I’m willing to call it baseball like it oughta be.
What’s in front of the Mets the rest of the way are three more homestands (they’ve been far worse at Citi Field than they’ve been away from it) and two more lengthy road trips. Aside from the marquee attractions of Jacob deGrom’s Cy Young pursuit and David Wright’s potential return — wouldn’t he make an ideal 55th Met of 2018? — the most compelling reason to stay tuned, beyond habit, oughta be the search for signs of what the 2019 Mets will look like.
Oughta be, indeed, but I take that with one of those shakers of salt Todd Frazier isn’t using anymore. A year ago at this juncture, we were thinking pretty much the same future-facing thing. Really, only a digit has been changed. The Mets had shed veteran after veteran and were now immersing themselves in the kids…or the major league version thereof, as opposed to the ones scampering about the Little League World Series. The composition of the 2017 Mets as the third week of August closed was presumed the shape of things to come : Rosario had arrived. Smith had followed. Plawecki was recalled. Conforto was already the centerpiece. Use these games to gain traction for 2018, we said. Get us rolling toward tomorrow.
Tomorrow has mostly sucked. None of the aforementioned four has had what could honestly be called a good season. Dom Smith has barely been a Met. Kevin Plawecki got hurt early and is only now forging a case for himself, the way he did a year ago. Michael Conforto’s 2017 ended abruptly and his injury cast a long shadow over his presumed glide path to stardom. Amed Rosario alternately lifts our hopes and lets us down. They’re all young. They’ll all stay young until suddenly, except when decked out for Players’ Weekend, they won’t seem like kids anymore.
We can add Jeff McNeil to the spirit of baseball not yet played. He’s a comer this August. His bat has been as hot as Brandon Nimmo’s was earlier in ’18. Hey, don’t forget Brandon. If anybody should have been romping around Williamsport, NIMMS was the manchild made for the moment, but he contracted an oww-ie the other day and, well, that’ll happen to Mets of all ages. McNeil might be the real deal, though. As might Nimmo once he’s healed. As might Rosario and all the others. We won’t find out in late August and September because we never find out in late August and September. All we can do is watch and learn as they play and learn.
And next year? That’s literally unknowable and inherently predictable. Don’t believe anybody who lays a Projected Everyday Lineup for 2019 or anything like that on you. Project for next year? You can’t project day-to-day with this team. Or with this game. A spate of months doesn’t necessarily work, either. Look at the top of the NL East standings and reckon that with where you thought the division was heading as 2017 was morphing into 2018.
Still, we can express broad-stroke preferences. All things being equal, I’d be happy to see more of the kids, partly because the former kids the Mets reflexively rely on haven’t much delivered on a daily basis and partly because the Mets normally recoil from giving any kids a shot until things get as bad as can be — and I’m tired of things annually getting as bad as can be, which at some point in every season this decade (even the couple of good ones) it has.
I suppose the two habits go hand in hand. For all the yammering this organization has done about “culture,” altering the philosophy that you can’t possibly call up your top prospects until you get desperate would represent an encouraging change of direction.
Understanding that every player’s progress needs to be calibrated individually based on readiness and club need, the Mets’ default mode has been to not call anybody up until there’s no viable option otherwise. The offense of July 2015 had to disappear from radar tracking before they’d promote Conforto. Conforto had to be judged to struggle beyond salvation in June 2016 before they’d promote Nimmo. Once they wound up on the same roster, neither was granted much in the way of consistent playing time. The dregs had to overwhelm 2017 before Rosario and Smith saw the light of day. The process had to play out similarly to bring McNeil to Flushing.
There are always undeniable circumstances to consider: the impending free agent whose talents need to be displayed as July 31 approaches; the experienced bat that needs more reps before it can be fully dismissed as inadequate; the minutiae of service time and contractual control; concerns that big league game might move too fast for a youngster who’s never encountered such stunning velocity before; managers and general managers (and perhaps owners) who simply trust who they know over who they don’t. None of it has necessarily been wholly misguided when applied case by case, but the consistent refusal to say, in so many words, “ah, screw it, let’s go with the kid and see what he can do” has left the Mets perennially both creaky and undercooked.
In this century, the Mets haven’t broken camp with a serious positional prospect in their ranks. Early April MLB debuts among Met position players have grown scarce. If you discount Tsuyoshi Shinjo in 2001 and Kaz Matsui in 2004 (rookies in name only, given their long track records in Japan) and Brad Emaus in 2011 (a Rule 5 guy, so he had to be here), the only true freshman non-pitcher who’s had an Opening Day with the Mets since 2000 is Ruben Tejada, in 2010, and he snuck in because Jose Reyes needed a few days on the DL. Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Juan Lagares drew April promotions in 2012 and 2013, respectively, out of necessity (somebody was hurt, somebody was failing) rather than a desire to actually give a kid a chance.
None among Tejada, Nieuwenhuis and Lagares was pegged a prime prospect. Jose Reyes was. The struggling Mets waited until June 2003 with him. David Wright was. The struggling Mets waited until July 2004 with him. Lastings Milledge was. Xavier Nady had to have an appendectomy in late May of 2006 before they’d elevate Milledge, and they didn’t keep him around long. It took forever to get Travis d’Arnaud up here in 2013, too. The pattern was in place well before Conforto. The only glittering position player prospect who was promoted in April in the 21st century — I mean the kind a team’s fans salivate over in advance — was Ike Davis , in 2010, and even then the Mets waited a couple of weeks to finagle his service time and go down swinging with reclamation project Mike Jacobs. Judging by all that’s been said by who’s said it, it doesn’t seem like we’ll even get a September peek at minor league RBI machine Peter Alonso, lest a clock start and paperwork need to be properly sorted.
Some of the top prospects of the 2000s and 2010s eventually flourished. Some fizzled. Some remain works in progress. What’s nagging at me is they are all treated as suspect by the people ostensibly developing them to compete at their sport’s highest level. A position player isn’t promoted to the major leagues and permitted to play regularly by the Mets because he’s deemed ready. A position player is promoted to the major leagues by the Mets and permitted to play regularly because they’ve exhausted all other conceivable alternatives. That’s certainly how it’s come off for close to twenty years, maybe longer.
Possibly because I’m so accustomed to this operational tendency, I’m pretty patient on the subject of lobbying for callups. “They’ll get here when they get here ” has been my mantra when all around me are demanding to know how soon this kid or that will trade in his Tides or Zephyrs or Bisons or 51s uniform for a Mets model. I’m also somebody who truly appreciates a brimming dose of veteran grizzle on my roster. Yet I have to think once in a while the Mets would throw hesitancy to the wind, or at least toward the breeze, and find out what would happen if they don’t wait for a season to barrel hopelessly to hell before turning a little more youthful. Maybe it would prove terribly detrimental to the player and the franchise alike and we’d all be set back from our shared goals of eternal happiness.
Or, perhaps, not. Maybe fueled by young blood, the Mets would get off to a flying start and keep soaring for six months. Maybe they’d have a budding star whose contractual status six years up the road would come to matter in practice rather than in theory. Maybe kids being kids would look good on the Mets as a rule, and not just in Williamsport.