I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For: The Vargas Years

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On Thursday, the Kansas City Royals held a press conference for their “Major Announcement”, the signing of left handed pitcher Jason Vargas to a 4-year, $32 million dollar deal. It was well known that the Royals were in the market for a starting pitcher to replace the departed Ervin Santana, who was a solid #2 starter for the team in 2013. Names like Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson and Phil Hughes were all bandied about for Kansas City, but in the end they inked Vargas. This announcement was met with neither joy nor anger by Royals fans…instead, it was met with a very ‘meh’ reaction. So was this a good deal for the Royals? Let’s go ahead and break it down.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Tampa Bay Rays

First is the length of the deal. When I first heard of the signing, this was the part that disturbed me. I am of the belief that very few pitchers are worth a contract over four years. The only ones you should feel confident with are the Clayton Kershaw’s and Justin Verlander’s of the game. If you are not an elite hurler, there should be no reason to give them a long-term contract. Pitcher’s are too fragile and tend to break down at a higher rate than a position player. It is also quite the gamble to do that with a pitcher in his 30’s, normally the age a moundsman starts to regress. So four years for an average pitcher(which I will get into in a bit) just seems like an awful idea. Between Jeremy Guthrie and Vargas, it seems as if Royals GM Dayton Moore feels he needs to add extra years just to get a pitcher to sign in Kansas City. At one point that might hold some truth; but that is not the case in 2013. Coming off of a winning year, the Royals aren’t in the position they were in when they had to sign Gil Meche to a large contract just to get him to listen. Those days are gone. So any talk that they HAD to give Vargas four years is preposterous. Hopefully signing Vargas to that long of a deal doesn’t come back to bite them, which it could. When you sign such a long deal for a guy, that is a commitment you are making to your baseball team despite how the player in question is performing. In this case, the Royals are more likely to stick with him in the rotation longer than they would, let’s say, Bruce Chen, because of their commitment to him. So in the end, the length of this deal is almost an albatross around the Royals neck.

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Now let’s look at the dollars portion of the deal. I actually have no problem with paying Vargas around $8 million a year. The contract actually breaks down to $7 million the first year, $8.5 million for years 2 & 3, then $8 million for the final year. In all honesty, most experts had predicted Vargas would sign for around $10 million a year, so an average of $8 million a year really is not bad. In this regard, the Royals did okay, even if you think Vargas is just a younger Bruce Chen. Which brings us to the next section…

Bruce Chen

If you look at Vargas and his style, it’s hard not to see him as a younger doppelganger of Bruce Chen, or at least his pitching style. Vargas doesn’t break 90 mph on the radar gun, and uses a change of speed as his biggest weapon. Normally with pitchers like Vargas and Chen, you either have to keep the batters off balance, or you are going to get lit up like Snoop Dogg(Lion?) on a tour bus. The last two years Vargas has had pitcher’s parks to call home(Anaheim & Seattle) and yet his home/road splits show two different pitchers:

2013:
Home: 6-2, 3.30 ERA, 79 innings, 60 Ks, 24 walks, .251/.307/.413
Road: 3-6, 4.82 ERA, 71 innings, 49 Ks, 22 walks, .303/.359/.440

2012:
Home: 5-5, 2.74 ERA, 98 innings, 69 Ks, 22 walks, .219/.265/.327
Road: 9-6, 4.78 ERA, 118 2/3 innings, 72 Ks, 33 walks, .266/.315/.495

It’s easy to see that he does fine in a pitcher’s park, but once he is away from there his numbers spike upward…a lot. Kauffman Stadium is more of a neutral park than the last two he has pitched in on a regular basis, and I’m sure the Royals great defense will help him as well. But his number’s at the K over his career don’t exactly ooze confidence from me: Vargas has pitched 20 innings at Kauffman Stadium against the Royals, with two total strikeouts and an ERA of 5.31. These are numbers from a guy who the Royals look to be counting on to be their number 3 starter this year…and maybe more in the future. So go back to that contract: 4 years, $32 million. Bruce Chen probably could have been re-signed for 2 years and around $12 million. That is way less of a commitment and less money for the same kind of pitcher. Plus, Bruce Chen is funnier. Just saying.

Jason Vargas

Now, don’t take this as me disliking Vargas. I think if the Royals were using him as the #4 or 5 starter I would have less of a problem with this. Vargas will eat innings and have games where he will look unhittable. He will be what he is: a solid, inning eating average pitcher. Hey, we all know the Royals need innings as much as anything. The sad thing is the Royals are at a point where they can contend, yet bought like they just want to get by. The window for this Royals team to win is very small, as James Shields will become a free agent after this upcoming weekend. Logic says the Royals should have gone out and gotten a solid #2 starter for the rotation. Was one available? Maybe not on the surface, but a guy like Scott Feldman or Phil Hughes might have more upside than Vargas does. Yes, Hughes would have been a gamble, but that is kind of what this team needs to do now. Instead, the Royals gave a large contract to a league average pitcher. If he is to be believed to be Santana’s replacement, it will be a step down.

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The one way around this is if Danny Duffy or Yordano Ventura step up this year and show the stuff that scouts have been saying about them for years. Duffy seems like a long shot, since he can’t seem to stay healthy or keep his pitch count down. He has the stuff and the talent, he just needs to stay off the DL and throw less pitches. Ventura had both good and bad moments in his September call-up. It’s hard to see his triple digit fastball and not get excited, and there is a very good chance he is as special as we’ve been told he is. But rookies don’t always flourish right out of the gate, so it’s hard to predict just what kind of pitcher he will be in 2014. There is also the outside chance Kyle Zimmer will jump from AA to the majors, but a lot of things would have to go right for that to happen. Either way, much like last year, the Royals are counting on more improvement than regression. It’s a scary gamble to take.

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So I hate the length of this deal, but more than anything I hate what this signing stands for. It probably means the Royals have made their big move of the winter and it was for a pitcher who reminds me of Bruce Chen and looks like Rodney Ruxin. I think Vargas will be a serviceable pitcher and should be a steady arm for Kansas City to count on. But the Royals need more, which puts more pressure on Duffy, Ventura and Zimmer to be more of a savior for this pitching staff. If this pushes Wade Davis out of a rotation spot, the deal looks better. But it’s not the deal I would have made, and it makes you wonder just how in it  Kansas City will be for 2014. The rest of the American League Central looks to be improved for next year, so for the Royals to keep up with the Jones’ they need to improve as well. Sorry, Jason Vargas. You are a step down at this point. Nothing personal. At least you have security. Four years worth, in fact.

Come to Beautiful Kansas City. We Have Fountains.

Waterfalls and fountains at the Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri copy

It’s hard to remember, but years ago, the Kansas City Royals were a constant in the playoffs. Most of what they built on the field was through the farm system, but there were some shrewd moves made by the front office at the time as well as some key free agent signings.  The bottom line was players wanted to come to Kansas City. Now, unless you are wanting to resurrect your career, or if you are a chubby infielder with “soft hands”, it’s hard to get players to WANT to come play for the Royals. It’s been asked and debated; do the Royals have to overpay to bring talent to Kansas City?

melkyOnce Dayton Moore took over as General Manager of the Royals, the team moved to sign better players and would pay them extra to come to Kansas City. The problem was that Dayton was signing level B and sometimes C or D free agents and practically giving them the keys to the city. Gil Meche was the first of these signings and if it wasn’t for former Manager Trey Hillman misusing him, the team would have gotten their money’s worth of that deal. Since then we have been abused with the ultimate clubhouse cancer Jose Guillen and Jason “Rewind Yourself” Kendall. It is almost like Moore felt like players of that level was the best they could do. I guess that is part of the problem here. When you believe that, everyone else will believe that as well.

Kansas City Royals Photo DayNow, to be fair, some of Dayton’s signings have worked. Bruce Chen was picked up off the trash heap and up until 2012, seemed to be playing above himself. Chen was signed at a low cost, but high value with both his play on the field and his jokes in the clubhouse. Unfortunately, he was then given a two year contract that has seemed to be one of many albatrosses around the Royals financial neck. Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur were two former Atlanta Braves that seemed to be on the downside of their once promising careers. A move to Kansas City in 2011 seemed to be a godsend as both players played above their past performances and helped solidified both the lineup and the outfield. Francoeur would sign an extension that seemed questionable at the time and horrific in the present, while Melky would be traded to San Francisco, have the best first half of his career, win the All Star Game MVP, then get busted for PED use. These two signings worked wonders for 2011, but looked awful by May of this past year. The Royals are a team that should constantly be looking to rebuild players who just need a new environment, but need to be selective about these signings as well.

jacksonSo this leads us to this offseason, where everyone and their mother is aware that the Royals want(and desperately need) pitching. We’ve heard over and over that the Royals will have to overpay or give a player extra years to get them to come pitch in Kansas City, but is that true? I know some scoff at this, but I believe it is. The Royals have a really good nucleus of young talent, with Perez, Escobar, Moustakas and Hosmer added to lineup mainstays like Gordon and Butler. The thinking is that if the Royals could just get some pitching, this team could make a run at the playoffs. There have been a number of pitching talents on the free agent market this winter, and some have signed for very cheap money. Brandon McCarthy just signed a two year deal with Arizona for $15.5 million. The Royals easily could have afforded just under $8 million a year, especially considering that they will be paying Ervin Santana $12 million for in 2013. Edwin Jackson is still on the market as is Shawn Marcum. Both could garner a one or two year deal for right around that same amount of money. Instead, the Royals seem content shopping top prospect Wil Myers in a deal for a top starter. That is all fine and good if they are able to pull in a David Price or any other top of the rotation starter. But the names being floated around aren’t of that ilk. All we hear are the Shields’, Dickey’s and Lester’s of the world. All are fine pitchers and better than anything the Royals have now, but are they worth losing the next six years of Myers? Um, no.

Jeremy+Guthrie+Kansas+City+Royals+v+Boston+Boqgv2aeQVLlSo why aren’t these pitchers coming to Kansas City? Well, I do believe part of it is Dayton Moore hasn’t really pushed for them. Ryan Dempster’s name has been tossed around, and the team offered him more than the Red Sox have. But he also wanted a third year on the deal, while Kansas City has only been willing to go two. I agree with them only wanting to give him two, as he is in his mid 30’s and had a hard time adjusting to the American League this year. But I have to believe part of why he won’t come to Kansas City is because this team just doesn’t win. Seventeen of the last eighteen seasons have been losing seasons in KC, and with the management in charge now, it would appear we are gearing up for season eighteen of nineteen. Most players want to win, but can be swayed away from winning if it means more money. If you aren’t getting the top dollar, you don’t want to sign with a perennial loser unless you think they have turned a corner. The Royals took a side road in 2012 and their road map didn’t seem to ever steer them onto the right highway. Players notice that and the losing atmosphere does not endear players to want to sign with the Royals.

MAG0522JUBILATION.IMGSo yes, the Royals do have to overpay to get major name free agents to play in Kansas City. Or at least they will until they put together another winning season. Having management value the wrong players will hurt as well, but until those members are gone( [cough] Dayton) we are stuck with a team that can’t even compete with the Baltimore’s and Brewer’s of the world. One day this awful cycle will be undone and the Royals will be a winning franchise again. Let’s hope this happens sooner than later.

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