As you know, the Kansas City Royals signed left-handed starting pitcher Jason Vargas as a free agent earlier this week as a free agent, for four years and $32 million dollars. Let's assess Vargas' career, his value, and his potential future in Kansas City.
Vargas was known to scouts as a high school pitcher from Apple Valley, California. He was drafted by the Twins in the 41st round in 2001, but chose to attend college at Louisiana State for 2002. Effective as a freshman in limited action (3.43 ERA, 16/6 K/BB in 21 innings), he transferred to Cypress Junior College to make himself draft-eligible for 2003. He didn't have a great spring, was throwing in the mid-80s and nobody pulled the trigger on him.
Vargas moved on to Long Beach State University for 2004 and had a decent year, posting a 4.14 ERA with a 90/31 K/BB in 111 innings. He boosted his fastball into the 90-94 range along with a slider, curveball, and change-up with major league potential. Drafted in the second round by the Marlins, he posted a 1.96 ERA with a 41/13 K/BB in 41 innings in the New York-Penn League, followed by a 2.37 ERA with a 17/2 K/BB in 19 innings in the South Atlantic League.
This was a successful debut and I was optimistic about him, viewing him as a four-pitch lefty with good command who could advance quickly. I rated him as a Grade B prospect entering 2005.
The Marlins were optimistic too. He began 2005 in Low-A, dominated for five starts, moved up to High-A, made nine starts, followed by just three more in Double-A. He was impressive (composite line of 2.50 ERA, 118/31 K/BB in 108 innings, just 76 hits) and the Marlins didn't hold him back, moving him to the major leagues in July.
He pitched 74 innings for the Marlins in the second half, posting a 4.03 ERA with a 59/31 K/BB, making 13 starts and four relief outings, posting a 1.6 WAR. This was pretty damn solid for a guy one year out of college, and he looked like a key component going forward.
It didn't turn out that way: Vargas began '06 in the big league rotation but got hammered (7.33 ERA in 43 innings, with 30 walks) and continued to get blasted after being demoted to Triple-A. The Marlins gave up quickly and traded him to the Mets. He spent most of 2007 toiling in the Pacific Coast League (4.97 ERA for New Orleans, 108/44 K/BB in 125 innings, 140 hits) and saw only brief action with the Mets.
A torn hip labrum required surgery and he missed all of the 2008 season. He was then traded again, part of a massive three-team deal between New York, Seattle, and Cleveland that saw Vargas land with the Mariners. This was a good fit for him, and by 2010 he was established in the starting rotation, where he stayed for three seasons until being traded to the Angels last fall for Kendry Morales.
Overall, Vargas has a career record of 51-58, 4.30 ERA in 980 innings, with a 639/301 K/BB and 991 hits allowed. He has benefited from pitching in friendly parks and his career ERA+ is below league at 91. His career FIP is 4.42. His best attribute is the ability to fill innings, posting a career fWAR value of 8.3, with his 2010 season (2.7 WAR) being his peak thus far.
Vargas is basically a league-average starting pitcher, at age 30. So is that worth four years and $32 million? As Dave Cameron wrote at Fangraphs:
Vargas projects as basically the epitome of a league average hurler in 2014. Steamer has him at +2.0 WAR over 182 innings, pretty much continuing the trend of what he’s done over the last four seasons. He throws strikes, gets a slightly below average amount of strikeouts, and usually posts lower than average rates of hits on balls in play. Whether you’re judging by ERA or FIP or some combination of the two, Vargas is going to rate as roughly average, or maybe just a tick below average depending on how much weight you put on FIP relative to ERA.
Cameron concludes that while the fourth year of the deal is likely to be problematic, it is not a massive overpay given the current market for starting pitching.
That's true, although as I mentioned yesterday, I like Joe Posnanski's counterpoint: the Royals are now committed to Vargas come what may, potentially a major problem if he falls apart sooner than expected.
Looking at the historical parallels, Vargas' Sim Score comps through age 30 are Wandy Rodriguez, Jamie Moyer, Charles Hudson, Chris Hammond, Brian Lawrence, Bronson Arroyo, Tom Gorzelanny, Mark Redman, Mike Scott, and Kris Benson. How did those guys perform after age 30?
Wandy Rodriguez has remained effective, putting up above-average to average numbers through age 34. Jamie Moyer, who was a journeyman at this point in his career with 46 wins and a career 93 ERA+, wound up pitching much better in his 30s (and 40s) than he did earlier in his career, finishing with 269 wins. Obviously the Royals would love that kind of outcome.
Charlie Hudson didn't pitch in the majors after age 30, so that's the worst outcome. Hammond fell apart at age 31, was out of the majors for several years, then re-emerged as an effective reliever at age 36. Lawrence fell apart at 31 and was out of the majors at 32.
Arroyo has been a steady, durable, 200 inning-per-season workhorse through age 36. Gorzelanny is an exact contemporary of Vargas so we don't know how that will go yet. Redman was a below-average inning-soaker at age 31, terrible but in the rotation anyway at age 32, then finally collapsed at 33. Mike Scott struck out 306 guys and won the Cy Young Award at age 31 and remained strong through age 35, but he was scuffing the ball. Benson had an adequate season at age 31, but was finished after that.
So, tossing out Gorzelanny since we don't know the outcome, of the nine most comparable pitchers to Vargas at this point in his career, two guys (Moyer and Scott) improved dramatically, although Scott at least had unnatural help. Two others (Rodriguez and Arroyo) have been solid. Redman, Hudson, Hammond, Lawrence, Benson all fell apart by age 33 at the latest.
Those are the historical parallels, which fit with my general instinct about this: signing Vargas is a reasonable short-term thing to do, but that four years is pushing it. There's some chance he could be better at 34 than he is at 31, but there's also an at least equal chance that he'll be completely worthless at 33-34 and that the last two years of the contract will be a waste.
Whether that's a minor consideration or a potential disaster will depend on how much payroll flexibility that ownership gives the Royals front office in 2016-2017. And Glass only knows what the answer to that question is.
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