The Mariners have won seven straight games, and have absolutely dominated since trading Ichiro and demoting Justin Smoak (who could have predicted that losing two of the worst hitters in baseball from a lineup could actually help the lineup). Eric Thames hit a homerun which basically guarantees that he’ll be better than Steve Delabar, and the team traded Brandon League for some pieces that should actually be of value, though the general public won’t care until next year’s prospect rankings come out.
Nonetheless, it seems like many Mariners fans are focused on something that didn’t happen: the team didn’t trade Jason Vargas.
One of the ridiculous truths about analyzing any non-trade is that we get to judge without having any basis to judge on. We have basically literally no data ever, and with this tight-lipped front office we have even less. We have no clue who the Mariners turned down, or what teams were interested, and our entire premise for valuing Vargas is focused on the perhaps-false notion that opposing teams are so much dumber than the Mariners that they can’t even bring up Baseball Reference and check out a park factor.
Opposing teams are generally not dumb. Jason Vargas is generally not a good pitcher. Jason Vargas was a toiling minor leaguer when the Mariners traded for him, and has elevated quickly to about a league-average pitcher who benefits greatly from his ballpark. League average pitchers have value. They aren’t replacement level, they’re about two wins above replacement level, but they aren’t great.
And there is a ton of speculation that the Mariners will bring the fences in at Safeco Field, which further complicates matters.
How the Mariners would alter the dimensions of the ballpark is unclear. The young hitters are very left-handed, but THE Felix Hernandez is very right-handed. Making things better for lefties would really swing the ballpark towards lefties offensively. Making it better for righties may not help the offense very much. It would probably also make Jason Vargas much worse.
So the Mariners face some pretty precarious options when it comes to Vargas, but there is only one right answer.
Signing Jason Vargas to an extension is an option that has been thrown around a lot lately. Results may say that Vargas has worked hard to solve his warm weather pitching problem, and succeeded in doing so. He dominated July, and apart from a rocky June, which really means just a bad game against Arizona, Vargas has posted good results. He’s got a 3.71 ERA and has pitched 153 innings, boasting a 12-7 record. He’s also posted a career-high ground ball rate of 40.3 percent.
What lies beneath is less impressive though. He’s running a completely unsustainable .244 BABIP and is giving up a ton of line drives. Between his increase in grounders and above-average line drive rate, his BABIP against is even harder to believe in. He’s also left nearly 80 percent of base runners on base, which is almost 10 percent above his career averages.
Last year I took a look at the possibility of signing Vargas to an extension and decided that the Mariners needed to sign Vargas to an extension last offseason, or not at all. I predicted he’d be looking at a $5 million arbitration number, which is about what Vargas got.
In the same post last year I compared Vargas to Wandy Rodriguez. Rodriguez is an alright pitcher. He’s probably better than Vargas, but he’s also not great. At age 32, coming off of two seasons that totaled 7.6 WAR, but that had comparable ERAs to what Vargas has posted the past two seasons he signed a three year, $34 million contract. The Astros would seemingly begin trying to trade him before the ink dried on the contract, and would finally deal him this season to Pittsburgh for three low-level prospects. The trade would trigger a fourth-year option for $13 million. Houston will pay $10.5 million of his salary.
The Astros signed Rodriguez to a contract that they almost immediately regretted. Nobody wants the Mariners to do the same.
Vargas probably isn’t going to receive what Rodriguez did in a contract. Rodriguez is clearly a much better pitcher. However, it’s almost certain that Vargas would receive much more than he’s worth.
Contrary to what prominent local columnists may implicate, the chances of Vargas receiving an accelerated arbitration raise in the range of $10 million are pretty slim. It’s hard to believe that Vargas would receive a raise to much more than $7.5 million.
Logically, Vargas may be looking at something like a three year, $18 million contract, or a two year, $13 million deal. But what’s the value in having a guy like Vargas locked up and under team control? Realistically, not much. The Mariners signed Kevin Millwood (who has out pitched Vargas this year by a long shot) to a deal that was a fraction of the arbitration number Vargas received. Guys like Jeff Francis have been forced to sign minor league deals, while Edwin Jackson settled for a one year, $11 million deal.
And that’s all assuming that Vargas has supplementary value because he’s able to take full advantage of Safeco’s dimensions. If the park changes, so will Vargas’ results, in all likelihood.
The Mariners best option is to let Vargas go to arbitration, and hope that he either performs so well that he justifies a tender offer and draft pick compensation, a trade in the middle of the season, or just simply leaves at the end of the year, and the Mariners replace him with a guy who fits the new park dimensions better.