I wrote about a plausible trade for Jason Vargas before the trade deadline. Now, after a brilliant performance largely responsible for handing Jered Weaver his second loss on the season, I'm going to argue why Vargas should not be King Felix's sidekick long-term. If you think I hate Vargas, well, I guess I can't blame you.
The irony is that I thoroughly enjoy watching Jason Vargas pitch. He reminds me of Jamie Moyer in many respects. They are both quintessential examples of crafty left-handers. Vargas, by in large, forces his opponents to beat him*, and sometimes they can. However, Vargas has a terrific defense and Safeco's spacious pastures behind him, which makes the job tough for an opponent.
*This sounds like a "duh" statement, but pay close attention to baseball highlights some night. Most hard hits start with a meat pitch in a hitter's count and/or a hitter anticipating a specific pitch and getting it. Sure, the batter still struck the ball well, but the pitcher made their job a little too easy.
Vargas hysteria seems to be hitting Seattle. Maybe it is those Viva Las Vargas shades. Getting honored as the AL Pitcher of the Month in July probably didn't hurt either. The showdown with Jered Weaver yesterday isn't the only feather in Vargas's cap, merely the most recent.
I love what Vargas is accomplishing right now but I was struck by how excited other fans are. I listened to some of the radio post-game show yesterday on 710 KIRO and I couldn't believe some of the comments. One fan called Vargas a 20-game winner. Another implied that he compares favorably to Cole Hamels. Others talked about Felix and Vargas as one of the premiere one-two punches in the American League. In general, I got the sense that Jason Vargas is currently seen as more than a good pitcher in a good stretch. Has he ascended to a new level?
I have a rule of thumb for determining what kind of starter a pitcher is. Call it the "inverse WAR rule of thumb." In my book, a bona fide ace should be worth 5 WAR, a second starter 4 WAR, a third starter 3 WAR, fourth starter 2 WAR, and fifth starter 1 WAR over the course of a full season. In other words, kind of like teams have five-man rotations, I have a five-tier WAR system. It just goes from 5 to 1 instead of 1 to 5.
King Felix is on pace for his fourth consecutive 5+ WAR system. He is a bona fide ace using my rule of thumb. Jason Vargas will reach 2 WAR with a strong finish this season. He currently sits at 1.1 WAR after his start yesterday. His best season was a 2.6 WAR. My rule of thumb suggests that he is somewhere between a number 3 and number 4 starter.
Great pitchers can carry a team on their back to victory. That's what Felix does. Good pitchers leverage their surroundings to maximize results. That's what Vargas does. He does not strike many batters out, which makes him more reliant on his defense and the ballpark's dimensions. The Mariners have a great defense and a home field that is playing extremely pitcher-friendly this year. Is it any wonder then that Vargas's ERA is over one run better than his FIP**?
**FIP stands for fielding independent pitching, in case you were wondering. It is scaled to compare to ERA.
Jason Vargas is valuable but we need to be honest about the value he provides. He will never be a "stopper." His pitching style is enhanced by good defense and spacious parks, and harmed by bad defense and small parks. Vargas happens to have the ideal arrangement around him in Seattle to succeed. Paradoxically, this is precisely why the Mariners should lock him up long-term, yet also not feel any pressure to pay him. There aren't many other teams (Tigers? Padres?) that could offer Vargas a comparable environment to pitch in, which in turn should lower Vargas's value on the open market. But do the Mariners really want a pitcher as productive as Vargas to get away?
Vargas will be 30 years old at the start of next season. His seasonal WAR totals translate to roughly $10 million annually on the open market. He will make $4.85 million this season, and projects to make $7-8 million in arbitration at the end of this season. I would be willing to sign Vargas for 3 years, $20-25 million, or 4 years, $25-30 million. The Mariners should not have to pay Vargas $10 million annually because they are giving him some long-term security, and because he also won't make that much next year in arbitration.
Plus, let's not forget what the Mariners have coming through their minor league system. Erasmo Ramirez and Danny Hultzen are in AAA. Brandon Maurer, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker are in AA. They are all prospects with real chances to develop into 3/4 starter types sooner rather than later. It is risky to depend on one prospect to pan out, but I am talking about one out of five, and many scouts think that some of these starters have higher ceilings than a third or fourth starter. The Mariners can safely assume that they will have a Vargas-level replacement within the next year or two.
If Jason Vargas really is a number two starter then the Mariners can't afford to lose him. That's not what he is though. He is a dependable mid-rotation starter in an ideal climate for him to succeed. That has value but the Mariners have most of the leverage. They don't need to drive a hard bargain, but hopefully they do not share the current borderline hysteria in the fanbase around his success. The Mariners can afford to draw a reasonable line in the sand with a long-term deal and let Vargas take it or leave it.