OK, so, yeah, it’s not so great that the Kansas City Royals told everyone they had a major announcement to make and then announced that they had signed pitcher Jason Vargas. Even if you like Jason Vargas, even if you love Jason Vargas, even if you are related to Jason Vargas, this is not a major announcement. The Royals’ general manager Dayton Moore is a good guy, and I respect him on numerous levels. But he doesn’t always have a great sense of how perception works. I should give him a chart.
Major announcement: I have found the cure for cancer. Not a major announcement: We have signed Jason Vargas. Major announcement: We are being invaded by alien life forms. Not a major announcement: We have signed Jason Vargas.
Anyway, the Royals did sign Jason Vargas to a four-year, $32 million deal, and before I get into how much I loathe this move I should point out that numerous smart people think it was OK. Not great. Not life altering. But OK. Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs thinks the move was not the worst idea ever, and Brian Kenny tweeted that pitching metrics say Vargas has been, “OK, not bad,” and Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger writes that Vargas, “Makes some sense for the Royals ... he is a good bet for 185 innings or so of league average production.” And so on. None of them are particularly excited by the move, but none of them find it to be especially galling either. Their thinking seems to be this:
1. He was signed for a relatively small amount of money. 2. He is roughly a league-average pitcher who should be perfectly serviceable for the next couple of years. 3. The Royals probably have a bigger thing in the works.
I disagree with each of these which is probably why I actively loathe the move while they are fairly neutral about it. But I’m always more than a bit leery when my instincts cut against the instincts of people who are smarter and are closer to the situation. Like with all Royals things, I hope I’m wrong. I’m hope they’re right. I hope Jason Vargas pitches great and I can write a post about how stupid I am and how glad I am the Royals have smarter people running the team. I always hope.
Anyway, let me go through some of my disagreements here:
1. He was signed for a relatively small amount of money.
I understand what a relatively small amount of money looks like outside of Kansas City but when it comes to the Royals, there is nothing small about four years, $32 million. Yes, I realize starting pitching is hugely expensive these days and all that. But the Royals do not give out these kinds of contracts. This one will shock you, but best I can tell it is right: I think Jason Vargas is the third-richest contract the Royals have ever given a starting pitcher.
Yeah. Third richest. I know.
-- Gil Meche, 5 years, $55 million. -- Zack Greinke, 4 years, $38 million -- Jason Vargas, 4 years, $32 million -- Jeremy Guthrie, 3 years, $25 million.
I could be missing someone, but the point is that Vargas’ contract is not some throwaway money the Royals happened to have on the side. Even if the Royals payroll structure has gone up, this is still a major investment for Kansas City, and it is a long-term one.
Anyway my problem with that sort of investment is not the money itself. It is the commitment that comes with the money. See, the Royals are now committed to Jason Vargas in a way that they are not committed to, say, Danny Duffy or Yordano Ventura or Kyle Zimmer or Miguel Almonte or any of their other young pitchers. The Royals get stuck in these messes all the time. They gave too much money to Jeff Francoeur, and they stuck with him for way too long while Will Myers got enough time in the minors to be named minor league player of the year.
Vargas could come out next year and be horrendous and the Royals will stick with him for too long. This is what a long-term investment means. You lock up all this money and it weighs you down, it cuts down your options, it forces you to do things that are not always in the best interest of winning.
Of course, the Royals obviously believe hat Vargas will not be horrendous -- quite they opposite. They must think he will at least be a league-average starter, and they probably think he will be better than that. Which leads to a second disagreement.
2. He is roughly a league average pitcher who should be perfectly serviceable for the next couple of years.
The last two seasons, Vargas has pitched 367 innings with a 3.92 ERA. That’s toughly league average. He has very good control so his Fielding Independent Pitching numbers seem roughly in line with league average too. Some very good projections -- including Bill James’ tools -- see him being roughly league average in 2014 as well.
But here’s the thing that bothers me about Vargas. The last two years, he has pitched his home games in two of the best pitchers parks in the American League. He pitched in Seattle in 2012. He pitched in Anaheim in 2013. Most of
Here are his home/road splits:
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
Those are not the best numbers for measuring, but I see a guy who was considerably better than league average at home, in those cozy ballparks, and considerably worse than league average on the road.
Now, Kauffman Stadium is a hitter’s park. People sometimes assume its a pitchers park because the outfield is enormous and it might be the toughest home run park in the league. That mitigates it somewhat (before they moved back the fences, Kauffman Stadium was an extreme hitters park). But that enormous outfield along with what hitters have told me is a excellent hitting background consistently makes Kauffman Stadium one of the better average, doubles and triples park in the league and hitters strike out less there. It’s good for hitters.
Does this mean that Vargas will regress? Not necessarily, but I don’t think you can write off the possibility. Let’s throw out a small-sample size bit: Vargas has pitched 20 innings at Kauffman Stadium against the Royals. Do you know how many strikeouts he has in those 20 innings? Two. Yeah. Two. His ERA is 5.31 in Kauffman.
I’m sure the Royals have all sorts of well-thought-out reasons why they think Vargas will pitch well for Kansas City. He’s a lefty with a good change-up, and whenever one of those comes up dreams of Jamie Moyers dance in GMs heads. But for every Jamie Moyer there are dozens of pitchers like Mark Redman and Jeff Francis and Sterling Hitchcock and Nate Robertson and Chris Hammond and Brian Anderson. Oh, Brian Anderson -- to be honest he might be the main reason I have really bad feelings about this move. Brian was one of my all-time favorites, a great guy, and I wrote a gushing ode to him when Royals signed him before the 2004 season. He was 31, lefty, fantastic control, good change-up, better than league average pitcher for several years. I called him the next Moyer. I felt sure that the best was yet to come.
You could say it didn’t work out. Or you could say that in his time with the Royals, batters -- all batters -- hit .317/..360/.546 against him, meaning he turned every single hitter in the American League into Vlad Guerrero. To be fair, he was hurt. But that also happens to 30-something pitchers. So does decline. The Royals might know what they’re doing betting four years on Vargas. I’m just saying if this was a craps table, I’d be betting “Don’t pass.”
3. The Royals probably have a bigger thing in the works.
I have little doubt in my mind that the Royals would like to make a couple of splashy moves this offseason. The time is right. They won 86 games in 2013, brought back manager Ned Yost, and would like to believe that they are real contenders in 2014. Heck, the other day I got an email from someone I did not know with the Royals asking if I’d like to buy season tickets. I emailed back saying that I would like to but, you know, I’ve moved from Kansas City. He wrote back, “Where did you move to?” I should email back just to find out why he’d asked that question. Do they have a special North Carolina package going? Maybe he just wants to be pals.
Anyway, I know the Royals would like to make an exciting move or two. But the question is always the same: CAN they make an exciting move? For it to happen, they need a willing partner, they need the money to be right, they need the situation to match up. This isn’t as easy as some seem to think. I was on a radio show the other day and was asked if the Orioles should trade Matt Wieters. I don’t know. They shouldn’t trade him for Jason Vargas. It depends on a million things -- how good is the offer, how does the money work, how does the team line up, is there a catcher in the system, on and on and on.
And for the Royals to make an exciting move will not be easy. They tried to get in on the Tim Hudson deal. It didn’t work. They tried to get on some Josh Johnson talks. Didn’t work. A few years ago, I remember, they thought they had Torii Hunter signed. That would have been moderately exciting at the time. Just before the deal was struck, the Angels blew the Royals offer out of the water, and the Royals ended up signing the delightful Reggie Sanders. That turned out not to be very exciting. You need someone who wants to come to Kansas City, someone who makes sense for the team, someone who will fit into the budget ...
So whatever the Royals intentions may be, the odds are against them doing something bigger this offseason. They decided to beat the Christmas shoppers by spending $32 million on Jason Vargas, and I’d say there’s a pretty good chance that will be their big move of the off-season. Again: Hope I’m wrong. But then I wasn’t the one who called the Vargas signing a major announcement.