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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

September 27, 2011 at 9:31 AM

Vargas worth keeping around in 2012

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(Jason Vargas hugs closer Brandon League after League saves a victory for him last night. Photo by Associated Press).

In 2010, Jason Vargas and Doug Fister were huge bright spots for the Mariners in the first two months of an otherwise dismal season. Ten starts into their seasons, Fister was among the league leaders in ERA at 2.45, with Vargas close behind at 2.92.

Neither could sustain it, however. Fister was shut down for about three weeks in June with shoulder fatigue, and struggled when he came back. In his final 18 starts, Fister was 3-11 with a 5.24 ERA and allowed the league to hit .310 off him.

Vargas’s success lasted longer than Fister; he still had a 2.94 ERA in late July, 19 starts into his season. But from there, over his final 12 starts, Vargas was 3-7 with a 5.25 ERA.

This year, of course, Fister has been mind-bogglingly successful in the second half since his trade to Detroit. No one in baseball is pitching better right now, in fact, and that goes for his Cy Young and possible MVP teammate, Justin Verlander. Yesterday was another ho-hum gem — eight shutout innings against the Indians.

Vargas, meanwhile, until recently was in the midst of another second-half faderoo, after another strong start to his season. In fact, Vargas had three complete-game shutouts prior to the All-Star break — a four-hitter against Tampa Bay, a three-hitter against Philadelphia, and a six-hitter against San Diego. That’s three more shutouts than Felix Hernandez has had this season, and it doesn’t even count the nine shutout innings he had against Baltimore in a no-decision. Essentially, Vargas threw four shutouts, which is exceeded in the majors this season only by Cliff Lee’s six. Derek Holland and James Shields are the only pitchers with four.

Still, it seemed like a stereotype was developing for Vargas: Great for a couple of months, but can’t put it together for a full season. For a 10-game stretch, from July 14, to Sept. 2, he was pretty awful — 1-7 with a 7.13 ERA and a .336 opponents batting average.

It was about that time Vargas instituted a change in his mechanics, going to a twist in his delivery reminiscent of Felix Hernandez. His velocity is up, and his results have improved markedly — a 3-0 record in his final four starts of the season, including yesterday’s gem, with a 2.03 ERA, a .212 opponents average, and 23 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings.

As Geoff wrote today, the Mariners face numerous personnel questions as they look to 2012. Vargas is one of them. He is arbitration eligible and stands to take a hefty pay increase from the $2.5 million he made this year — up to somewhere in the $4 million to $5 million range. Geoff speculates they could trade or even non-tender Vargas to save money.

I think that would be a dangerous proposition, however. The Mariners can envision a dream rotation of Hernandez, Michael Pineda, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen, but that’s off in the distance. (Speaking of which: Walker was named today by Baseball America as the No. 1 prospect in the Midwest League, with Paxton at No. 8.). Pineda’s season shows just how delicate is the process of introducing young arms — even exceptionally gifted young arms (or maybe especially those) into the rigors of a 162-game season. Pineda has wisely been used sparingly by the Mariners in the second half, as Paxton no doubt would have to be if he made the team next year, as I suspect he has a good chance of doing. Ditto Hultzen, who could be in the rotation by some point in the season but will be facing innings restrictions as well.

Blake Beavan will likely be in the rotation, but it will be his first time doing so from the start of the season. He’s had his moments, but you still don’t know what you’re going to get from him — and even less so with Charlie Furbush. I don’t see many other good options in the organization, unless they convert Tom Wilhelmsen to starting — an intriguing possibility, I must say.

As I see it, the Mariners need the stability of a left-handed veteran like Vargas who has shown that at his best he can dominate major-league lineups and should, at age 28, be entering his prime. Vargas is one of only 16 pitchers in the American League to reach 200 innings, which brings it’s own value and is difficult to replace. There’s reason to think that the mechanical change, and the increased velocity that has resulted, is sustainable. If so, then Vargas has a chance of taking a step forward, as Fister has done since joining the TIgers.

Jack Zduriencik’s focus this winter needs to be on beefing up their offense. He doesn’t need to be spending any chips to fill another rotation spot, which he’d have to do if Vargas departed. The Mariners should pony up the extra salary to Vargas and save themselves another headache.

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