Royals sign Jason Vargas, a useful piece

Ronald Martinez

After a fairly successful 2013 season, the Royals look to push through towards the postseason in 2014. The team believes that adding veteran Jason Vargas to the mix will help them attain that goal.

This past Thursday, the Kansas City Royals performed a very Royalian act by signing left-handed starter Jason Vargas to a four-year contract worth $32 million. Last offseason, the Royals signed right-handed starter Jeremy Guthrie to a three-year $25 million contract. For the second year in a row, Dayton Moore has signed a former-Angel, innings-eating starting pitcher to a three- to four-year deal with an AAV between seven and eight million dollars.

Fangraphs writer Dave Cameron described this deal in his piece:

"Jason Vargas might not raise the Royals ceiling all that much, but he does raise their floor. And there's value in that kind of transaction."

Cameron's assertion seems accurate when you consider that Vargas provides dependability and durability, but little else. He represents a career #4 / #5 starting pitcher -- an affordable product that probably won't break down, but lacking in any flashy or sexy way. Vargas gets by with a style of pitching similar to another lefty, Jamie Moyer. He doesn't throw hard, relies heavily on his changeup, but keeps the ball in the strike zone. Vargas doesn't strike out many hitters, limits his walks, doesn't induce proportionally high numbers of ground balls, but often causes awkward and weak contact, leading to enough outs to continuously throw at least five innings per game. In fact, since 2011, Vargas has thrown at least five innings in 76 out of his 89 starts, or 85% of the time.

Innings

K%

BB%

FIP

fWAR

2010

192.2

14.3

6.7

3.95

2.7

2011

201.0

15.3

6.9

4.09

2.2

2012

217.1

15.9

6.2

4.69

0.8

2013

150.0

16.9

7.1

4.09

1.5


Steamer projections have Vargas going 180+ innings and earning exactly 2.0 fWAR. Vargas will be 31 years old at the beginning of the 2014 season, and will be 34 years old when his new contract expires. Baseball Prospectus' R.J. Anderson added to the conversation, calming those critics of the deal who see little upside to the signing.

"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."

Anderson makes two good assertions, the first being that pitch-to-contact pitchers like Vargas can benefit from both spacious pitcher-friendly ballparks as well good defenses. Especially given that Vargas isn't a groundball machine (career 0.85 GB/FB ratio), and will benefit a speedy, ground-covering, and talented defensive outfield like the Royals that combined for 59 defensive runs saved in 2013. This will likely aid Vargas' success and thus justify this deal even more. The second point concerns opportunity cost. Could the Royals have better spent the $8 million AAV over four years? It's possible, but given that their core of position players like Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Salvador Perez, and Alex Gordon are all locked up through 2016. So, padding the team's underbelly -- or raising their floor -- makes sense.

Especially when considering that the Royals sport a great bullpen with mostly young, cheap, talented relievers, Dayton Moore and company didn't need to go after a big fish type pitcher. Last season, the Royals' bullpen accounted for the second highest fWAR of any bullpen in the majors at 7.3 collective wins while throwing a combined 461.2 innings pitched. Only the Atlanta and Detroit bullpens threw fewer innings than Kansas City's relief core, and neither of those team's came within two wins of the Royals' value. Moving Luke Hocheaver and Wade Davis to the pen worked, and with others like Collins, Holland, Crow, and Smith in the mix, the Royals probably don't need three impact starting pitchers. Those figures did include a number of innings taken up by Ervin Santana, but the innings can be replaced by Vargas, the question remains as to whether youngsters like Danny Duffy, Yordano Vantura, and Kyle Zimmer can add the production the team will miss without Santana.

In the grand scheme of things, the Royals made a solid move. The signing does however signal that the front office continues to place a lot faith in their young core of position players like Moustakas and Hosmer to not only continue to produce, but to improve. Making a play for a flashier, likely more expensive, but overall more high-ceiling player, either through a trade or free agency, would have attempted to mitigate the risk the team has taken on by placing their improvement on their young core. Still, as a smaller market team, KC must make these educationally based gambles and hope for the best. Will signing Jason Vargas push the Royals over the hump from a winning team to a playoff team? Probably not, but moves like this continue to provide the club with the opportunity push through to the postseason, similar to the manner by which the 2013 Pirates and Indians got there.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FangraphsBaseball ProspectusBaseball-Reference, and Brooksbaseball.net.

Ben Horrow is a writer at Beyond The Box Score and The Good Phight. You can follow him on Twitter at @Summerpastime.

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