Saturday, July 28, 2012

Now is not the time to trade Jason Vargas . . .

This was supposed to be the year of the light at the end of the tunnel.  This was the year the young players were supposed to hit and the young pitchers were to emerge from the minor league womb. In battle, it is said, your best plan never survives the first 90 seconds of contact with the enemy.  And so it's been with the Seattle Mariners.  The young hitters struggle, but everybody with a keyboard has chronicled this situation ad nauseum.  The young pitchers have developed in the minors just as slowly and hardly in a straight line. The battle plan for for 2012 is as irrelevant today as Mitt Romney's position on anything during his gubernatorial campaign in 2002.

The Big Three +1 that began the season in Jackson all hit a variety of potholes on the road to Seattle. Andrew Carraway was the first to reach Tacoma from Jackson, and is now on the disabled list.  Danny Hultzen is also in Tacoma, but is struggling with his control.  Taijuan Walker's glorious May turned into a disastrous June, but his game seems to have turned around.  James Paxton spent six weeks on the disabled list.  None are close to being big-league ready.  Not to be negative, but it's not certain any of them will ever be big league ready,and certainly not this season.  Like Michael Saunders and Dustin Ackley, they're young and inexperienced, and these things take time to sort out.
Vargas throws an average fastball, and counts on a nasty change-up for his out pitch
A great example of this is Jason Vargas.  Vargas came to Seattle as part of the huge J.J. Putz swap in Jack Zdurencik's first season that also netted Franklin Guttierez and Mike Carp among others. Vargas arrived as a lefty with a lot of question marks. Though he isn't in the same category as Felix Hernandez or Roy Halladay, since his arrival in 2009 he's pitched well enough to pile up an increasing number of innings each year:
2012-146.0 to date.

Vargas is not a brilliant pitcher.  In only one of those seasons did he have an ERA+ of greater than 100, which is league average.  This year he is at 99.  His game is made for the vastness of Safeco Field, and he has pretty extreme home and road splits.  What he has done is be somebody Eric Wedge can run out there every fifth day and count on getting a decent start.  Vargas tends to be a fly ball pitcher, and is very prone to coughing up home runs.  But his numbers his last six starts are really good.  Take away the great home run massacre in Arizona on June 20th, when he gave up five in four and a third innings, and Vargas would be over 100 in ERA+.  His last six games were stellar, with three outings of at least eight innings pitched, four wins and no losses.
This year, he's added an effective cutter to his repertoire.  Despite a rough patch in June, Vargas leads them with 11 wins, and has pitched extremely well of late.
Jason Vargas is a name that's being mentioned prominently in trade rumors as we near the deadline along with Mariner reliever Brandon League.  We're just beginning to see what Vargas can really do.  Yet, here is the Mariner rotation with Felix, Vargas and a lot of uncertainty.  Blake Beaven has had a couple of nice starts, but he's young and it's not certain that can continue.  Kevin Millwood continues to muddle through the season.  He hasn't been supported with many runs, but he also seems to able to pitch just well enough to lose.  Hisashi Iwakuma hasn't shown he can provide more than five innings of constant trouble.

Trading Vargas now is a problem for this team.  They've put together a decent stretch against the Royals and Rays, while struggling to score against the Yankees. They're heading into the end of July with a winning record for the month, and while they are clearly out of anything resembling a meaningful pennant race, they are trying to be more respectable and offer their diminishing fan base some hope.  Last year the M's traded off Eric Bedard and Doug Fister for pieces and the team, which had endured the 17 game losing streak, collapsed going 22-33 to finish the season. Larry Stone at the Seattle Times wrote a great article about the impact of trading Vargas and Millwood on this team and the readiness of other pitchers to step in and fill their roles on the staff. Geoff Baker wrote about the financial impact of keeping Vargas on the team.  As Vargas continues to develop, he's 29, he becomes more valuable, or costly, probably worth $7 million next year or more if he continues to improve on his team leading 11 wins.

There are two reasons in favor of trading Vargas.  First, the Mariners are not currently able to compete for the playoffs.  They are likely two or more seasons away from competing and trading Vargas will bring pieces that will make them more competitive later. They might provide a current upgrade (unlikely, because any team that trades for him isn't likely to trade away the bits that got them in the playoff hunt in the first place,) or prospects.  We know about prospects.  We've got lots of them.  Some of them have panned out reasonably well, like Casper Wells and Charlie Furbush.  Some are still question marks, like Blake Beaven, Francisco Martinez and Justin Smoak.  Others were shoveled out with the elephant dung after the circus like Luke French and Mauricio Robles.  The point is, that a Vargas trade may help, but it will be down the road.

The second reason for trading Vargas is that he'll cost too much money.  Felix will make just north of $20 million next year, and if Vargas hits the jackpot in arbitration he may make as much as $10 million.  That's $30 million for two players in a budget that's likely to be about $80 million.  Toss in Chone Figgins' misspent $9 millions and that's three guys eating up half your budget.  Not the way this team should be going.  Everybody else is still pretty young and don't cost much at this point. The argument is that Felix and Figgins are locked in, the money is spent, and the M's can't afford to keep Vargas, pay the youngsters and have money to put into some veteran free agents that can carry more of the offensive load load next year.

As a loyal fan, committed to this team win or lose, trading Vargas is not the move to make for this team.  If Major League Baseball is an economic enterprise first, this team and every other team requires, even in this age of big television contracts, the MLB network,, and MLB at Bat, a fan base.  The M's fan base has shrunk and withered to a diminished, dessicated, dehydrated shadow of its 2002 high.  We are gasping for wins, and peering into the mists of the future searching for optimism, or at least some warm bats.  Yes, periodically, Vargas will get lit up--in really spectacular fashion, kind of like an ammunition dump exploding.  But, he is an anchor on this pitching staff, a guy who usually gives his team a chance to win when he goes out there.  And-get this-HE WANTS TO STAY IN SEATTLE!! In the end, even Ichiro bailed. Enough is enough.

While this team waits, and hopes, and drafts, and teaches and trims its budget, and struggles to win in the hope for future competition, the fans endure. Some don't endure. They stop caring.  The M's are about to be chased from the sports page by the London Olympics and the opening of Seahawks camp.  They are a sporting irrelevance for most sports fans and its only July 28th.  The further disintegration of this team that would follow a Vargas trade, will only make it that much harder for diehards to attend games at Safeco, or tune in to ROOTS sports every night.  My message to the M's: increase your budget, sign Vargas to a multi-year deal at a somewhat lower yearly cost than arbitration, do what you need to do but stop the exodus of big-league pitching from this city.  Support your shrinking fan base and don't trade Jason Vargas.

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