Royals Sign Jason Vargas

This is going to be more of a quick take than any kind of long rambling analysis, as I have done too many of those today already, but hey, more news. This one’s not a Fielder-for-Kinsler trade, but the Royals have filled their last rotation spot by signing Jason Vargas to a four year, $32 million contract. The deal was first reported by Yahoo’s Jeff Passan.

I’m assuming the initial reaction of many is going to be the same as my initial reaction when I heard they had given Jason Vargas a four year deal; that’s nutty. Jason Vargas is a perfectly serviceable big league starter, but you don’t usually give four year deals to role players. Vargas isn’t any kind of front-of-the-rotation ace, he has moderate upside at best, and this deal covers his age 31-34 seasons, so the four year term is kind of odd. It’s entirely justifiable to say that you wouldn’t want to guarantee money to a 34-year-old Jason Vargas, given that his stuff is already marginal and he hasn’t always been the picture of health.

But there’s two parts of every contract, and the years are only half the story. You would happily give Jason Vargas a 20 year contract so long as the price was only for $1 million per season; there are different prices which justify different contract lengths. And so while we generally think of four year deals as being for significant amounts of money, this one is going to cost them just $8 million per season, and thus it has to viewed as an exchange of an extra year in exchange for a lower annual salary. And it’s a trade off that’s maybe worth making for the Royals.

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.

League average starters don’t sign for $8 million per year anymore. Tim Hudson, who Steamer projects for +1.6 WAR over 185 innings for the Giants, just got $11.5 million per year from the Giants. Tim Lincecum, at +2.0 WAR over 191 innings, got $35 million over two years. Sure, these pitchers have better track records than Vargas, and Lincecum has the lure of upside, but these prices are significantly higher than what Vargas got. Vargas gave the Royals a discount in salary in order to get the extra fourth year.

If this deal was 3/27, would anyone really be freaking out? That’s basically what the Royals gave Jeremy Guthrie last year, except Vargas is better and younger than Guthrie. And the league has more money to spend this winter than it did last winter.

There’s a good chance that Vargas, in year four of this deal, is going to be totally worthless, a replacement level scrub who fills a low leverage long relief role or something. But $32 million is paying for something like +5 WAR over the next four years, and even if we just project him for +2.0/+1.5/+1.0/+0.5, then we’d expect him to produce exactly +5 WAR over the life of this deal. This isn’t a gross overpay. It’s just transferring some of the cost of signing an average pitcher from 2014 to 2017. For a team with moderate financial resources trying to make a run for the playoffs, that’s not the worst idea ever.

This can’t be the Royals big off-season move. Vargas fills a hole with the expectation of reasonable performance, but he doesn’t really make them better than they were, especially since he’s replacing Ervin Santana. They’re going to have to find other ways to upgrade if they want to become a contender. But this is also a decent enough contract for a decent enough pitcher to make sure that they don’t throw away their season by handing a rotation spot to a total scrub. Jason Vargas might not raise the Royals ceiling all that much, but he does raise their floor. And there’s value in that kind of transaction.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Professor Ross Eforp
10 years ago

I had the same initial reaction as Dave. Once I saw that he signed for 4/$32MM I immediately knew it was Seattle, KC, or Philly. The deal really isn’t all that awful upon further review, but I’m not sure how much sense it makes for KC.

As Dave said, he is replacing Ervin Santana. That sucks. Even worse, they are on the hook for three years after Shields leaves and the rotation becomes a complete crapshoot (at least in terms of known MLB quantities). It would have made more sense to me to go with a guy that at least has a chance to be as good as Santana was last year on a shorter deal. Bartolo Colon and Rich Harden both feel like guys that, while they may implode, could actually do a servicable job replacing Santana.

10 years ago

Let’s wait for Colon to sign before we peg him as a ‘shorter deal’ guy. For all we know, he’ll sign for 4 years too. It sounds absurd now, but just about every contract has had some level of absurdity so far.

The Foilsmember
10 years ago
Reply to  vivalajeter

Colon is 40. Present tense. Which means he will be 41 next year. I can only imagine how old he’d be in 4 years.

10 years ago
Reply to  The Foils


10 years ago
Reply to  The Foils

“I can only imagine how old he’d be in 4 years.”

Actually, age is one of the few things that our projection systems almost always get right.

Miguel Tejada
10 years ago
Reply to  The Foils

Almost always

Ronald Lutece
10 years ago
Reply to  The Foils

The question isn’t if he is 45, but when.

10 years ago
Reply to  The Foils

Almost always is correct. Every projection system said Fausto Carmona would be 28 going into the 2012 season after spending 2011 as a 27-year-old, and he ended up being 31 the next year.

On the other side, I figured Julio Franco was going to be 42 at the start of the 2001 season, and apparently he was 25 based on the subsequent progression of his career.

Can’t always get everything right.

10 years ago
Reply to  The Foils

He’s “40.”

Couldn't Read That Clearly, I Think
10 years ago

Did you just say Rich Harden?

10 years ago

Jason Vargas, reliable, flyball LHP if pitching in a deep park. He’s better than Bruce Chen or Jeremy Guthrie. I know you’ve never liked him much, Dave, but I doubt he’s worthless in Year Four. More likely he declines to a #5 guy because he’s ahead of that now. I don’t say ‘an innings eater’ because amongst the larger flaws of Vargas’ profile is that he very seldom goes deep in games, so his team needs to have a deep, versatile bullpen . . . which KC DOESN’T, so yup, Dayton Moore makes his move again. More of a little lost, little gained kind of contract, to me.

I don’t see Hudson or Lincecum as good comps for Vargas as far as per annum costs because a) both have been far better than Vargas at peak, and b) both have much better stuff still. But the point is still valid: $8M a year is less than what league average guys are going for. In that sense, it’s a win for KC, getting a lower per annum, while a win for Jason in getting a four-year committment. If he stays healthy, it’s an OK deal. Not a steal, a deal. I like Jason Vargas as a player, and I wish him well. As for KC, the wheelspinning saga continues, doesn’t it?

Trent Phloog
10 years ago
Reply to  Balthazar

Why do we all agree that Vargas is better than Guthrie? Using ERA-/FIP-/xFIP-:

Guthrie last year: 99/119/115
Vargas last year: 105/108/108

Guthrie career: 97/110/110
Vargas career: 109/112/111

Arguably Vargas was a touch better last year, depending on how much weight you give FIP. But Guthrie actually had better results, and has been better for his career.

Also using WAR, Guthrie has accumulated 12.9 in 10 seasons; Vargas 8.3 in 8 seasons.

Basically, they both seem like the same crappy pitcher. I can’t believe I just spent this much time thinking about them, or that the Royals are spending almost $20 million combined for the privilege of employing them in 2014.

10 years ago
Reply to  Trent Phloog

The thing about Vargas is, you can’t really get a handle on what he does in looking at aggregate statistics. He’s an extreme fly ball guy, and he has been routinely lit up in some of the better hitter’s parks. He gets above average numbers in the majority of venues and innings he pitches. His numbers are skewed by excessively bad outings in bad contexts. I’m not arguing that we throw out Jason’s worst results but simply that we see those bad results as a) context dependent, and c) not indicative of consistently mediocre performance. The misuse of aggregate numbers is endemic here at Fangraphs. In most cases, ‘it all averages out,’ but in some, no, and Jason Vargas is one of the exceptions. I say that having watched him pitch for years.

To what extent that can be minimized by intelligent usage by his manager is hard to say. Jason Vargas wants the ball every time it’s his turn, and doesn’t take well to being skipped. The point is, in most of his innings, Vargas IS appreciably better than Guthrie. He is Dr. Jekyll in 3/4 of his starts, and Mr. Hyde in the alleys of short parks who should be kept on a short leash in such places.