November 22, 2013
Viva Las Vargas
Signed LHP Jason Vargas to a four-year deal worth $32 million. [11/21]
Last season, Luis Mendoza and Wade Davis tallied 204 innings, averaged 1.8 strikeouts per walk, and compiled a 5.40 ERA for the Royals despite pitching in front of the league's sixth-best park-adjusted defense. American League starters as a whole posted a 4.15 ERA, meaning the Royals' duo littered 200 innings of replacement-level work over 39 starts. Dayton Moore probably needed another starter if he re-signed Ervin Santana, and the need intensified without progress on that end. Even so, Vargas is not what most Royals fans had in mind.
The hot name linked to Kansas City had been Phil Hughes. His age, familiarity with pitching coach Dave Eiland, and fastball-slider combination cast him as an obvious upside play. Someone who, at the end of the day likely tops out as a no. 4 starter, but has the chance—however slim—to exceed expectations by improving his command or changeup. Hughes' potential is easy to see, and—no matter how hard it would be to realize—that gives him a leg up on the capped Vargas.
Yet it was likely Vargas' predictability that attracted Moore. Vargas is a small, command-and-control southpaw whose religious-like devotion to his changeup allows him to survive without average velocity. He's not glamorous, he's not going to improve by much, and his fly-ball tendencies can lead to uncomfortable sequences, but he is reliable above all else. Vargas has consistently posted marks befit of a back-end starter across the board, and hasn't missed time due to arm or shoulder issues since 2007; he would have notched his fourth 190-plus inning season in 2013 were it not for a campaign-ending blood clot.
The qualms with Vargas are less about durability and qualifications and more about term and opportunity cost. Four years does feel a touch long, just as the AAV feels a touch short—perhaps the two sides compromised, with the Royals doing so in order to secure their man. The opportunity cost is a fair point—here's where upside comes up again—but it should be noted that Vargas fits the Royals well. Not just insofar that he's a fly-ball pitcher joining a team with a spacious ballpark and great outfield defense, either—though both those things are true.
Kansas City's rotation now features James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Vargas, and likely Danny Duffy, with the final spot hinging on Moore's offseason. The good news is the Royals have their own assortment of upside plays on the way. Be it Yordano Ventura, Kyle Zimmer, or someone else, Kansas City could have a few young arms to mix into the rotation in the coming months. Should those arms work out, Vargas is going to be pushed farther down the chain. It's possible, perhaps probable, that he's going to be viewed as a trade chip before the contract expires. That will be a good thing—not because it indicts Vargas, but because it means the Royals' young arms developed; had they done that to begin with, maybe Moore never has to sign the veteran in the first place.
Fantasy impact: Jason Vargas isn’t exciting, but he is… there. He throws a bunch of innings and he wins double-digit games or close to it. His ERA won’t kill you, but it won’t help either. His WHIP will hurt you more often than not. He’s a fly-ball pitcher who has pitched in parks that are suited to his abilities, and Kauffman will continue that tradition. At the same time, his fly-ball percentage has dropped four years running, and he actually got more groundballs than fly balls last year. The ballpark still matters though, as Vargas lacks premium stuff, so when it does get hit in the air, it’s good to be in a park that contains well. Vargas ranked 118th among pitchers in ESPN leagues, and it’s hard to imagine that he’ll fare much better in Kansas City. He might have a shot at more wins on what was a better team last year, but he’s more waiver wire fodder than reliable starter in most fantasy leagues. —Craig Goldstein