Those were some nice applause Jason Vargas got as he came off the field following the eighth inning. He’d just held the Kansas City Royals to a lone hit and would go on to pick up his career-best 11th win and post a 4-0 record and 1.46 ERA in July.
And of course, all the talk now will be about whether he gets traded.
I’ll tell you what, a move that once appeared to be a no-brainer to me is starting to look a whole lot more like a coin-flip. Especially considering the mediocre returns on some of the mid-season deals this team has had in recent years. The Casper Wells-Charlie Furbush thing is working out, but that Mauricio Robles-Luke French haul at the 2009 deadline is proving far too lacklusture.
And there’s no guarantee the Mariners will do any better by trading Vargas.
Here’s what Vargas had to say when I asked him if he thought he may have just pitched his final game in a Seattle uniform.
“I hope,” he said, “that I’ve proven I’m worth more here.”
That remains to be seen. The way Vargas is pitching, he stands to earn plenty in arbitration next year. I’ve always thought his $4.8 million might get bumped to $7 million or $8 million.
But the way Vargas is going, he’s on-pace for 18 wins, a 3.76 ERA and over 230 innings — all as a left-handed starter. Arbitration hearings aren’t like your typical sabermetric convention (yes, I’ve actually been to some, even spoke at one). The arbitrators won’t care about xFIP or contact rates against Vargas as much as they will look at older-school stats at which he currently happens to be achieving plenty in.
And besides, innings are innings, sabermetrically-earned or not. You throw 235 innings and put up wins and ERAs like that on the periphery, you’re getting into bigger-money company. To the point where I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest Vargas could double his current salary to something like $10 million.
Would the M’s want to take that risk? Not with a payroll that looks poised to dip below $80 million. Not with Felix Hernandez already on the books for more than $20 million. That would give you two starters taking up — charitably — more than 40 percent of payroll between them for a non-contending team.
So, either the M’s are prepared to boost payroll, or risk a dangerously out-of-whack allocation of resources, or they are going to trade Vargas next week.
There is, however, one bit of middle ground here.
The Mariners could also decide to offer him a multi-year contract extension. They would give him more money in a package for less money each year. They did that with Jack Wilson, getting him to tear up an $8 million final contract year and go for a two-year, $10-million package.
That’s always an option.
But then, the Mariners would also not get any players back in a Vargas trade. Because if you trade Vargas, you get the player — or players — in return and will also be able to use the money you didn’t spend on the lefty to go get someone else.
It’s a tough call either way. I’m not privvy to any offers GM Jack Zduriencik is looking at right now and believe me, that will be huge in determining what happens next.
But just doing this as a salary dump? I’m not as convinced as I once was. Vargas appears to be finding some very interesting rhythm to his pitching and it all starts with the improved delivery on his changeup.
Well, it starts with spotting his fastball, which he did much better tonight and which allows him to use the changeup. Because with Vargas, if he can use the changeup, he’s a dangerous pitcher. If he can’t, he’s the guy capable of giving up 25 homers in just over half a season.
The Mariners have to be certain which pitcher they have in their midst right now before signing off on a deal.
Because if you’re planning on contending anytime soon, Vargas is starting to morph more into a more legit middle-of-the-order pitcher than a back-end guy. And you need those guys if you’re a contender. You need the stuff that comes after the aces.
“He’s just grown,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “Even in the short period of time I’ve been here. It’s been a lot of fun to watch this guy continue to figure it out and continue to get better.”
And now, we’ll see whether Vargas will continue to grow here, or someplace else.
There are solid arguments either way and the money one is tough to overlook. But it can’t always be about money, can it? Not like he’s going to earn $15 million and up. A few years ago, this team paid Jeff Weaver $8 million for one season. Giving Vargas $9 million or $10 million when he can’t possibly be any worse than Weaver was is hardly going to be the franchise tipping point. Right?
Or, maybe it will be. We’re about to find out.
“This has been my first home in the big leagues,” Vargas said. “I was given a lot of opportunity here and I’m fortunate I took advantage of it.”
He’s going to be fortunate one way or the other come payday. The Mariners? We’ll have to wait and see about them.
But at least they won tonight and got some hits. At least they won’t have to send four sub-.200 hitters out there tomorrow night. The way the Royals pitch, the M’s might not have any sub-.200 hitters left by the series finale.