The Kansas City Royals let loose hot from the gate this off-season, confident in their plan to find viable fixtures for second base, right field and an innings-eating starting pitcher.
Before anyone knew how the pitching market would shape up, Dayton Moore wrapped up Jason Vargas with a 4-year/$32 million contract. Despite some commentary to the contrary, it is a good signing. In fact, upon reviewing how the market shaped up, it is difficult to imagine how Dayton Moore could have done much better.
The Royals were never in the hunt for Masahiro Tanaka. He did exactly what we all thought he’d do and signed with the Yankees for 7 years/$155M.
The club wisely never showed much interest in 41 year-old Bartolo Colon, who has a rather extensive injury history as well as a PED suspension on his record. In his career, he has strained his lower back, shoulder, upper arm, abdomen, thigh, and groin. He’s been sidelined with inflammation to every major joint in his throwing arm and has entered this spring training with tightness in his lower leg. He’s had shoulder surgery. Letting another team sign him was unquestionably a wise move.
Bronson Arroyo would have made a good fit, but Dayton Moore was thinking long term, trying to find a pitcher who would help keep some stability in the rotation while the young guys move up and after James Shields exits the team to test free agency. Arroyo is 37 years old this year and he won’t be the future of any team.
Dayton Moore was looking for a solid 200 inning pitcher in his late 20s or early 30s, old enough to be a veteran but young enough to maintain a high production level.
Vargas has been league average for the past four years, never blowing the doors off the competition, but never getting beat up either. Despite a stint on the disabled list last season, Vargas threw 190+ innings in the previous three seasons. In his past four seasons, he has thrown 721 IP with a 3.97 ERA, 96 ERA+ and 8.4 bWAR*. When comparing him to similar pitchers, one could make the argument that he was the most valuable major league pitcher on the free agent market.
*I tend to use bWAR (Baseball-Reference’s formula for Wins Above Replacement) because it is the only one that is based primarily on what actually happened instead of what should have happened, as calculated by Fangraphs using BAbip, K/9 and BB/9.
Ricky Nolasco, who was coming off a decent season, has thrown 754 IP with a 4.33 ERA, 91 ERA+ and a 5.8 bWAR since 2010. He got a four year deal for $49 million guaranteed–$17 million more than Vargas.
Matt Garza has only 661 2/3 IP since the beginning of 2010, a 3.71 ERA, a 107 ERA+ and a 7.2 bWAR. He signed with the Brewers for four years, $55 million guaranteed. He has better raw stuff than most other pictures on the market, but his health was (and is) a concern to many teams.
Ubaldo Jimenez has thrown 769 1/3 IP with a 4.00 ERA, 105 ERA+ and a 10.3 bWAR since 2010. Despite having an MVP-caliber season in 2010, things have been rocky since. He seems to have put things together in the second half of 2013, but that’s a short time to bank four years and $50 million on, as the Orioles did.
Ervin Santana demanded a hefty salary, despite having similar value to Vargas. Since 2010, he has thrown 840 innings with a 3.87 ERA, 101 ERA+ and 7.5 bWAR. He has also pitched for years on a partially damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Buster Olney has said multiple times that teams are concerned about his elbow holding up to a multi-year deal. No one knows if it will suddenly snap.
As primarily a flyball pitcher (career .60 GB/FB ratio to the league average .80), the Royals are very nice fit. Vargas already doesn’t allow many home runs and Kauffman will certainly help keep them in check. Also, as the Royals showed with Ervin Santana, their outfield can run down would-be doubles in the gap like nobody’s business.
The worst part about Vargas, that has been accurately pointed out again and again, is that he has very little upside. He’s been average in hitter-friendly parks. He’s been average in pitcher-friendly parks. He’s just…average. Even though we might see a career year from him, a lot of that will be due to Aoki, Cain, Gordon, and Dyson.
If we were playing the odds, and the Royals really wanted to contend for the division title, they would probably have to hit the jackpot on a higher-ceiling pitcher like Garza and hope he doesn’t get hurt. Instead, Dayton Moore hopes to hit the jackpot on his young talent and stabilize the rotation with reliable, average, veteran innings-eaters like Vargas and Guthrie. Despite the club’s trouble with pitching development, it’s not a bad plan when we see what’s in the pipeline for the team. Now it just has to work.
Vargas wasn’t the flashiest signing, but for the overall value at a reasonable cost, he may have been the bargain on the market.