Back in November, the Padres quietly signed a pitcher named Cesar Vargas as a minor-league free agent. Tonight, he’s making his major league debut against the Cardinals. Vargas pitched in the Yankees organization last year, where he spun an impressive 2.55 FIP and 24% strikeout rate in relief between Double-A and Triple-A. New York let him walk as a minor-league free agent last winter, however, rather than adding him to their 40-man roster.
Interestingly, the Padres inked Vargas to a major-league contract. It’s pretty rare that a minor-league free agent signs a major-league deal, so the Padres clearly saw something they liked from the Mexican righty. Perhaps even more interestingly, they’ve used him as starter in the minors this year — something he hadn’t done since 2013, when he pitched in Low-A.
Vargas dominated in his two starts at the Double-A level this year. In 13 innings, he struck out a third of the batters he faced, resulting in a sparkling 1.25 FIP. That’s a tiny sample, of course, but it’s hard to pitch any better than that. He seems to have adapted well to his new role.
KATOH pegged Vargas for 1.7 WAR heading into the year, which was fifth best among pitchers who missed both Baseball America’s top 30s and Dan Farnsworth’s organizational lists. That was Cesar Vargas the reliever. Even before his two most recent starts, he had the statistical profile of a moderately compelling prospect.
Vargas was omitted from even the deepest of prospect lists, which means he was parsecs from any top-100 lists. This implies his stuff is all sorts of underwhelming. However, he’s proven he can get high minors hitters out by way of the strikeout, and guys like that often get big-league hitters out too. There’s certainly a talent gap between major-league and minor-league hitters, but I’d posit that gap isn’t so large that pitchers require a completely different set of skills.
I’ll be watching Vargas closely tonight, as I’m eager to see how his stuff holds up against big-league hitters. He only needs to retain a fraction of his minor-league performance to be a serviceable big-league starter. In the realm of minor-league free agents, where almost none provide any value whatsoever, that would be the equivalent of a jackpot for the Padres.